Donald Williams, 19, sat despondently in the bleachers today staring at the drizzle and fog that cast a symbolic shroud over the Wilde Lake High School football field.
"This whole thing was unfair and it has hurt me bad," Williams said with resignation, looking at the field that until last week had been his greatest source of pride and pleasure.
Now he looks at it with sadness. On Friday - after a week of frantic protests, appeals, birth certificate searches and threatened law suits and court injunctions - the stocky middle linebacker was declared ineligible by the Maryland superintendent of schools. He had turned 19 on Aug. 13, 1977 - and a player is ineligible in Maryland if he turns 19 before Sept. 1.
The Wilde Lake team (9-1) had to forfeit all its game on the eve of the little school's first chance to play in the state class B football semifinals.
Williams, who had come to Columbia to live with his foster brother only months before so he could leave Jersey City and "get a clean slate," suddenly found himself at the eye of a moral hurricane.
"I was humiliated in public. Things that were nobody's business about me being a foster child and not even knowing my right birthday have been dragged around on TV," he said.
But it's worse that my whole team, my whole school has been punished. And nobody has done one thing wrong."
Wilde Lake High and much of Columbia would agree with Williams. For the last fortnight this community has been on a roller-coaster ride that had raised issues that go far beyond high school football, state playoff games, forfeited victories and an ineligible player.
It was a "deeply troubled" state superintendent of schools, David Hornbeck, who announced with "profound regret" that Wilde Lake's last appeal has been rejected. The Wildcats' spot in the semifinals would be awarded to a team that Wilde Lake had beaten by five touchdowns.
The reason: Donald Williams, a transfer student, was ineligible. Too old, by 18 days.
It made no difference that Williams had celebrated his birthday on Sept. 13 all his life. Or that the first two legal documents received by Wilde Lake had shown Sept. 13 to be Williams' date of birth.
It made no difference that a third transcript document showing an Aug. 13 birthday did not reach Wilde Lake from his New Jersey school until mid-season.
Above all, it made no difference that Wilde Lake, from coach to principal, tried to learn if Williams was ineligible from the first day suspicions arose.
A drizzle of tears, a fog of disillusionment, has settled over Wilde Lake High and the families of the 42 players.
"This has been a travesty of justice," summed up Wildcat coach Doug DuVall. "Everyone is breaking their arm patting us on the back for our great integrity, but four years of work has been flushed down the drain because we and Don were caught in the middle of an innocent misunderstanding.
"I told the Howard County superintendent, 'Here we have a chance to teach our students honesty, and instead we're showing them that in the real world it's better to lie,'" said DuVall, his jaws clenched, fighting for restraint.
"We say that they should go through channels work with the system. But then they see a middle-class bureaucracy where everybody passes the buck and no one will reverse or disagree with the decision of his superior.
"You have a sick, helpless feeling. I just had this growing feeling all along that the more honest we were, the more we'd be done in."
The case of Wilde Lake's forfeit is almost unique because no one questions the school's version of the facts, nor doubts that the discovery of Williams ineligibility came from within the school and not the result of any foe's protest.
"Not in the furthest recess of my mind did I think they would punish 41 other kids," steamed DuVall. "All along the worst we could imagine is that they would declare Williams ineligible."
For Wilde Lake's adults the trauma has been manageable, although the school's principal, Dr. John Jenkins, said, "I'm having a very tough time explaining this to my 9-year-old son."
The burden has been heaviest on Williams, who spoke about his feelings for the first time yesterday in an interview with The Washington Post.
Williams' life, from the time his natural mother was severely burned and suffered brain damage "when I was an infant," has been difficult.
"I went to Lincoln High School in Jersey City," he said. "I quit the football team one year because the coach would cuss you. The next year, he wouldn't let me come out for the team.
"I dropped out of school and tried to join the Marines, but I flunked the test by three lousy points."
Williams' prospects seemed so dim in Jersey City that his foster mother, Mrs. John Harvey, sent him to live with his foster brother in Columbia.
The young man's transformation in his first few months after moving to this middle-class suburb was dramatic.
"Everyone treated me so good," Williams said."This team had been together since they were freshmen and I was the outsider, but they took me right in and told me all the stories of their games for the last three years. I was more at home here than I ever felt in my life."
The Howard County superintendent office issued a press release announcing Wilde Lake's season was forfeited. One Baltimore TV station began its nightly sports broadcast with the inaccurate statement that Williams was two years - rather than two weeks - overage.
The player was so shaken that he decided he could not return to school. "Here I was the new guy and I was costing them what they worked for so long. I thought sure all the weight would come right down on me."
While almost every parent of every Wilde Lake player attended a night meeting to decide what appeals, lawsuits or even court injunctions they could take, nine Wilde Lake players thought it was time to seek out the middle linebacker nicknamed "Cold Duck."
"We thought it would be nice," said junior Bill Hughes. "I thought Duck would be down. But he felt even worse than we thought. He was really bent out of shape."
Shakespeare wrote: "Sweet are the uses of adversity which like the toad, ugly and venomous, wears yet a precious jewel in his head."
Until that moment Wilde Lake's sorrow had had no redeeming feature. Even today senior center Steve Shilling admits. "We'll never forget this. It's impossible to find anything good in it."
But in an unpredictable way, the ugly toad visited on Williams also had a jewel in its head.
"I couldn't believe that the players came to my house. I saw all these cars out front and I said, 'Nobody's giving a party here.'"
"We talked for a couple of hours and they cheered me up. I really liked that. I've never had so many people stand up for me as I have in the last week.
"Coach DuVall teaches brotherly love, everybody's the same, black and white. And on this team, everybody associates with everybody else.
"But I never felt it so strongly before. I know who my friends are now, and I never thought I had so many. I guess I feel better about people now, even though this is the worst thing that ever happened to me."
Williams is one of the few at Wilde Lake who can see even a hint of silver lining. On the school's main bulletin board are letters of commiseration and one long diatribe from a player's mother declaring: "beaten by the bureaucracy."