Ninety seconds remained in the game between the junior varsity football teams of Blair and Peary high schools. It was first and 10 for Blair at the Peary 45.
Tailback Byron Carrington took a handoff, started to his right, cut back through a hole opened by 5-foot-2, 107-pound guard James Hawkins and 5-2, 120-pound center Don Olson, and ran toward the end zone.
As Carrington broke open, Blair Coach Bill Lindsey ran along the sideline yelling at his players, "Don't hit anybody, don't block anybody." At this level of competition, you never know where the next clip is coming from.
"Big game for us," said Lindsey after his team won, 8-0. "We've got 34 kids out here, a lot of them little, but they can survive at this level. Some will never be able to play varsity. But this is their chance to develop their skills and play football in high school."
This is junior varsity football: ninth and 10th graders learning the basics of the game. It's not a great spectator sport. Except for the constant cheers from the junior varsity cheerleaders of both schools, there was little else to confirm a football game was even being played. Most of the crowd was busy gossiping, listening to suitcase-sized radios or just passing time.
By the time the game had ended, only about three dozen of the 60 or so who had paid $1 each to watch were around to witness Blair's first victory after five losses. The only reason most people were there at all was because the game was played on Friday afternoon instead of the usual Saturday morning.
"Ten o'clock is too early to get up to watch jayvees play on Saturday morning," said Hawkins, who plans to eat lots of potatoes and spaghetti and lift weights before trying out for varsity next year. "This is the biggest crowd we've ever had. And they saw us win."
"I'm on my way to work," said a student in the crowd. "Even if the game wasn't here, I would be sitting here until it was time to split. Watching them is better than watching the varsity practice."
While Carrington was busy handing out high fives, Hawkins and Olson exchanged smiles. They knew they had played a major role in the victory.
"The referee told me, 'Good block,' " said Hawkins, a sophomore. "I hit the tackle and knocked him away from Carrington. Everyone I play against is much bigger than I am so I look for their weak spots."
Such experiences are fundamental to junior varsity football.
"The jayvee level is where kids learn to play football," said Madison Coach Chuck Sell, whose jayvee teams have lost only three games in the last five years. "There are very few instances when a freshman or sophomore is strong or mature enough to compete on the varsity level. We can keep some of the kids on the varsity, but they wouldn't get to play very often. And these young kids need that experience."
The very thought of mixing it up with a 6-3, 225-pound defensive tackle isn't appealing to many jayvee players. But they figure their time will come.
"I'm in no hurry to play varsity football," said John Delnegro, a 5-11, 170-pound sophomore guard/nose guard for the St. Stephen's junior varsity. "Deep down I think I might be able to play on the varsity level, but I know I'm a little young and I need to learn some more. I'm comfortable playing jayvee this year because I feel myself improving."
Clearly there is much to improve at this level. Mistakes, and plays that easily could be featured on the TV show "That's Incredible," are in abundance. But it doesn't matter.
"The jayvee kids work just as hard, and this experience is so important," said Pat Casey, the jayvee coach at St. Stephen's. "They want to play too, and it's important to get them in games to keep them interested. They get their own identity and feel part of the (varsity) team. The jayvees are the unsung heroes of every school."
But when money gets tight or personnel becomes thin, the first program to feel the burden is the junior varsity. Budgetary cutbacks in certain jurisdictions, such as Prince George's County, have seriously affected the jayvee programs. Several coaching staffs have been greatly reduced and the teams play fewer games. To combat the manpower shortage, some schools keep their junior varsity and varsity together.
"I haven't had a junior varsity for four years, mainly because some of our equipment was stolen and we don't have a coach for them," said H.D. Woodson Coach Bob Headen, who works with about 80 players daily.
"In our league (Interhigh), we have problems keeping coaches for the varsity level (there were nine coaching changes this season), so you know our jayvee program suffers. I just prefer to keep all my guys, teach them together. That's why I have so many players."
There is no tackle football program at the junior high school level in metropolitan area public schools. Most boys between the ages of 10 and 14 either play in recreational leagues, CYO or Boys Club leagues. But some miss out because they are either too old or weigh too much.
"The boys clubs in the area have helped our program a lot, but many of the kids can't play because they can't make the weight limit," said Otto Jordan, the Interhigh League athletic director. "Our program has suffered lately because of the lack of coaches. We only have about six teams now. Everyone agrees the jayvee programs are beneficial, but the way things are, it's hard to keep them going."
St. Stephen's has an organized lower grades intramural tackle football program and 90 percent of its varsity players started in elementary school.
"In the intramural program, the kids play according to age and weight," said Al Thompson, St. Stephen's varsity coach and athletic director. "It's an excellent learning process. They come up through the system and by the time they reach the varsity level, they've learned the basic skills. Most of the kids who play jayvee in our league (IAC) eventually end up on varsity.
"The only drawback here is that the varsity and junior varsity practice together most of the time. Instead of putting in valuable time getting their offense and defense together, we use them as the scout team or to run our opponents' plays. And, it shows sometimes when they play because they aren't quite as prepared as they could be. On the other hand, they learn everything the varsity does and it helps them down the road."
Carrington, for one, has benefited from working with the varsity.
"I never played football before this year," said the sophomore. "I'm very happy playing jayvee because I know I'm going to get to play every week. I've learned a lot. When I started, I didn't even know how to carry the ball."