Gar-Field senior running back Mike King felt more like a teacher's aide than a football player Monday when he found out what kind of information he was distributing to his teammates at their first practice.
"I'm sitting there handing out binders with names on them, and you open up the binder and it [says] 'character education,' " said King, who rushed for 925 yards last year. "You look at it like, what is this? I'm used to looking at '30 traps' and '28 sweeps,' " he added with a laugh.
The handouts were part of a "character education curriculum" that Coach Joe Mangano has implemented this season after hearing Arizona high school coach Dennis Parker speak at a clinic.
In the program, the Indians learn life lessons about such intangibles as adversity, discipline and motivation as well as vocabulary words, all with the goal of making them smarter, psychologically tougher and more focused.
The words for the day -- culled from a list provided by Parker's literature -- included "extrovert," "blunder," "befuddle" and "bogus." After practice, Mangano called out players' names and quizzed them for definitions.
Mangano acknowledges that he had the same initial reaction at the clinic that King had this week passing out the binders.
"I sat there for the first five minutes and was like, what's this guy going to tell me?" said Mangano, entering his second year at Gar-Field. "After about 10 minutes, I was really into it. We X and O all we want, and we go to these lessons -- I want to learn about the receivers and I want to be cover two [defense]. . . . The one thing you fail to realize is if you don't have character kids who are reliable, accountable and have good work ethic, it really doesn't matter what kind of coverage or zone or defense you run."
Between the lessons and a host of returning players -- about six starters on each side of the ball, although no Division I recruits -- the Indians should be on firmer footing this fall than they were during a 2-8 season last year.
Put it this way: Gar-Field started nine sophomores in its 2004 finale. This season, only one or two sophomores are likely to start.
Looking back on his first season, Mangano thinks he was so caught up in installing an offense and defense that the team lost sight of detail and that he might not have catered enough to individual strengths. Too many poorly communicated signals from the sideline resulted in too many improper formations. Too many penalties stalled too many drives -- the team scored 10 or fewer points in seven games, including a total of 12 in the last five outings, a discouraging offensive span in which the improved defense allowed only 68 points.
"It was hard," junior quarterback Savion Frazier said. "Coming to practice every day and . . . knowing you're not scoring [any] points."
Mangano had inherited little proven talent -- just two all-district players in a four-team league -- but even so, expectations were going to be high at a school that had reached the playoffs in seven of the previous 10 seasons.
"I guess we had to take one on the chin," Mangano said. "We had to grow. . . . It was inevitable. Some people said, 'Were you throwing the season away [by using so many young players]?' I said no. What happened as the year went on is that the sophomores actually ended up being just as good or better than many of the upperclassmen."
It won't take the Indians long to find out what strides they've made. Their second scrimmage is against Division 6 runner-up Robinson. Their Sept. 2 opener is against Central Region power Varina, which has reached the playoffs 10 straight years (the teams met not long ago in a seven-on-seven tournament at a University of Virginia camp). And the second game is against Division 5 runner-up North Stafford.
Three of the final five opponents reached the playoffs -- Hylton (a team that has beaten Gar-Field the past 15 meetings), Potomac and Woodbridge.
With a schedule like that, maybe that character education curriculum will come in handy after all.
"We felt we lost a lot of games last year because of fourth-quarter effort," senior lineman Alex Fretz said. "Does the fatigue get you? How do you react? . . . We believe if we can better our character and come together as a team, we can pull through those hard games."