Woody Hayes once washed his hands in the men's room at Theodore Roosevelt High School in Northwest Washington. The day lives on in the memory of Coach Jim Tillerson like none other, mainly because there were no paper towels near the sink and Hayes, then the coach at Ohio State, was forced to pull his fancy dress shirt out of his pants and dry his hands on the tail end.
That was years ago -- could it really have been 10 or more? -- but the bright vision of Hayes standing there with soap bubbles blooming on his hands once again has come up in conversation. It almost always does when the locker room talk becomes dreamy and lost to old times, and someone asks about the best moments in the history of the school.
Tillerson, whose Rough Riders play Anacostia today at 11 a.m. at RFK Stadium for the Interhigh League championship, embraces this clear picture: Hayes with his mouth frozen in a sardonic scowl that was more than a little menacing, but tame nonetheless, and the shirt and tie he wore, the polished Sunday shoes and the combed-back head of hair, white as pillow stuffing.
One thing about Hayes, Tillerson knew, he was a believer in the philosophy of Gen. George S. Patton, which boiled down to one essential principle: You go down fighting, eyes on the scoreboard, fists clenched in fury.
Tillerson, the coach at Roosevelt since 1969, has long enjoyed believing his teams played the game that way.
His latest, carrying on the tradition, was in the big dressing room just down the hall and across the varnished white pine of the gymnasium the other day, whiling away the hour or so before practice. For the seniors, the next few days of practice meant more than they could ever attempt to say. All week, former Roosevelt players and graduates had called and come by to wish them luck and to remind them that this was their last good glory -- this was the last time most of them would ever be a part of a football team.
Never again, in most cases, would they hear the voice of a crowd and believe it cheered for them alone. Or know the feel of a helmet and shoulder pads and hip pad girdle, or the taste of blood on the tongue after running big-hearted into a charging wall of human bodies.
"We're the Rough Riders," Maurice Johnson, the senior tight end, was saying with no small show of pride. "That's a pretty good name for a team. Don't you think?"
"It's been rough, all right," Edward Foote said, biting his chin strap. "Three years of rough."
"And a ride, from start to finish," Donnell Bridges rejoiced. "Some kind of ride."
"A rough ride," somebody added. "It was one rough ride."
"It sure was," DeVarryl Williamson, the quarterback, said, finding a spot on the bench. "And I'm just a sophomore."
"Uh-huh," Arnold Hudson muttered, shaking his head. "I like that name."
"You know it."
It didn't seem to matter that just up the road, at Anacostia, a cadre of ball players was dealing with the same sentimenal storm that rages in the souls of everyone confronting the end of something good. Or that at T.C. Williams in Alexandria, the best team in the metropolitan area, was preparing to play South Lakes in the Virginia AAA Northern Region final. Or that most everywhere in the country, one class was turning the dream over to another and marching off triumphant, prideful of their days in the game.
James Graham, a child care counselor who helps Tillerson with the coaching chores, knows well the meaning of the big game. He played on the 1974 Roosevelt team that beat Anacostia for the Interhigh League championship and later devastated St. John's, 41-7, for the city title.
"It's something you take to the grave with you," Graham said. "You wear the name 'champion' on your back. When you live with it a long time, you die with it, too. Then it goes on down with you, and it goes down deep. But that name 'champion' is stuck with you forever."
Graham, who later played at Howard University, was a senior on the 80-member team that spent the night before the Interhigh championship game sleeping on the gym floor. They placed vaulting mats side by side along the width of the building and slept under heavy wool blankets, and nobody who was there would ever forget it.
The next day, they were to run between the goal posts at RFK -- back then, as now, everybody called it simply, "The Stadium" -- and be king for a day.
Still teen-agers yet, they would feel like pros and execute each down with such pride and conviction that not one of the 10,000 in attendance would doubt their intentions -- to win and win big. And make the best of the last game.
"Once you leave here," Graham said, "it's all over. It gets serious. Life is a big business, man. And football's fantasy. It was fun for so long and then it went away."
The senior players at T.C. Williams are part of this special national experience, this rite of passage. Receiver Chucky Grimes clings fast to the memory of the gatherings on the "purple carpet" before class each game day. A group of players met in the lobby, and there was always a flood of students passing by, wishing them well.
"Coach (Glenn) Furman said life goes on," Grimes said on the phone the other day. "I guess you have to hope it does."
Grimes' teammate, offensive guard John Vaughan, said he's "looking more down the road than just the South Lakes game," and hopes for a state championship. "This is the culmination of three years of very hard work," he said. "I'm kind of melancholy. I'll miss my pregame ritual of pounding my head on a locker and snarling and spitting . . . "
Roosevelt reached the championship game because of a forfeit by Coolidge for using an ineligible player, but that hardly steals from the importance of the contest. Tillerson, who says he's not "a hard-rock coach," wants to finish the season with the same "sense of purpose" the team brought into the season. "I tell 'em, go out there and kill a fly with a sledge hammer," he said. "And, walk softly and carry a big stick."
On Monday afternoon, when somebody asked Roosevelt linebacker Bryan Johnson what his plans were, Johnson thought for a moment and said, "To stop the run."
"But I mean long term," the visitor said.
Johnson puffed up his chest and shot back, "They'd better not try to pass deep on us."
As he has throughout much of the season, Johnson was sitting with a huddle of teammates in a corner of the locker room, on a heavy oak table that has served both as a soap box and make-do sleeping cot for the team all year long. "We either snooze on it or talk on it," Reginald Parker said, patting the scarred surface. "It's always busy."
But suddenly, the table and the tiled floor beneath it had come to hold new meaning for the senior players, although tight throats prevented them from declaring that small corner of living space hallowed ground.
"Everybody can look at it real good," Parker said, gripping one of the table's legs. "Because it'll be around when we won't."
A little later, as if to fight back the gloomy tide that had swept over his teammates, fullback Keith Moore said in a soft voice, "There's really no time for sadness. I just want to beat Anacostia bad. I don't mean the score, either. I mean bodies. Physically. Bad, I said.
"After the game, we can be depressed all we want. But not now. We got to want it to happen, to play it this minute. Today. Get rid of it and get on."
What should be made of the fact that the best experience of their young lives will come to an end on Thanksgiving Day, when there's turkey in the kitchen at home and NFL wars on television?
Should they wonder what the normal folks of the world are doing this day, when they themselves are out on a piece of pasture working out the blessed sum of their passions?
For many, the game will soon become the one true love that got away, but no one who's ever known its magic can say it was not worth the struggle or the sacrifice. In the end, there is always much to be grateful for. And to look back and remember is a fine thing.
"If you loved it," Graham said, "it always loved you back. And that's why I feel a little haunted some times and get these flashbacks. I can walk across the gym floor and see where the leak from the skylight has caused the boards to buckle. I can see the hump it made right near the basket.
"But there's no leak there now. And they fixed the floor years ago.
"Or I can go outside and look for the hills we used to run. But I know the hills are gone. They shaved 'em down when they added on to the gym. Until '77, if you played football at Roosevelt High those hills were like Mount Rushmore. They meant something. It was history, you know. And I can still see them there.
"Coach would make us climb up and down those things about 20 or 30 times a day, and it was hard. I grew to hate thinking about those damned hills, but now, I don't know. I want 'em to come back. I really do.
"If I could, I'd run 'em till I dropped just to remember what it felt like."