Back-to-back seasons full of disheartening losses, lack of interest among the students and strained budgets led to the termination of the Interhigh League athletic programs at Bell, Chamberlain and Phelps vocational schools after the 1982-83 school year.

Even Steve Powell, who had guided Phelps to its best record in years (4-5) in 1981 and was selected Interhigh coach of the year, saw the handwriting on the superintendent's wall and began searching for another coaching position following that season.

"The program would last only one more season {going 2-8 in 1982}, so I had to go," said Powell, who has been a head coach or assistant at Anacostia, Ballou, Coolidge, Phelps and McKinley since 1968. "I thought the program would eventually be reinstated, but I didn't think it would take this long."

Not only has Phelps' football program been reinstated, but Powell has returned as head coach.

"It seems wherever I go, I have to build a program. We've been working to get things together here since January and I'm very excited about the possibilities," said Powell, a special education teacher at Phelps.

"A lot of credit has to go to Principal Ernest "Bull" Johnson, Athletic Director Kenny Harriston and the custodial staff. They've really done a great job getting this program back. We have new everything and we practice on a nice, grassy field near the school. About the only thing we're hurting for is a blocking sled, and that's been ordered. We need one desperately.

"I had hoped to have about 40 kids, but we have 32 in uniform. Actually, most of the kids here came as a result of the school system's recruiting kids for the more diversified academic-vocational program that began at Phelps in September 1989. A couple of kids came because of the football program.

"I was pleasantly surprised at the size and the talent of the kids we have. I was a bit too gung-ho early, but I've slowed down and started taking things one step at a time. I plan to stay this time. I'll finish my coaching career here."

The first priority for Powell is to eliminate the losing attitude associated with Phelps. From 1975 to '82, Phelps compiled a 14-58-2 record and was high on the preferred list of teams to schedule for homecoming. The Panthers' last football championship was in 1964.

"Cultivating that positive attitude is the most difficult thing to deal with," Powell said. "You can't blame the kids for feeling negative about the program. There has been no positive carryover effect from previous years because we're starting over again. I know what people will be saying about us. They're looking at us as a new football program and fresh meat for everyone. But we don't feel that way."

Particularly Johnson.

"The Panther Pack is back," said an excited Johnson, formerly a football coach and administrator at Eastern. "I've always believed in having programs that motivate the kids, and football is one of those activities. I believe in what we're doing and we'll overcome that losing attitude and the obstacles facing us. No one continues to fail. Right now, I can't complain about a thing. The coaching staff, the kids and the teachers are excited about the program. The Pack is back."

Having traveled this way before, Powell carefully chooses his words when asked to predict how his team will fare.

"I would be ecstatic with a .500 season," he said. "Most of the Interhigh League teams have between 35 and 40 players, so we should be able to play with them and a break-even season is attainable. Our success will be determined by how quickly we gain experience, and right now we're inexperienced."

A number of Phelps players -- including 6-foot-4, 330-pound Chris Rucker; 6-3, 265-pound Darryl Blackwell, both sophomore linemen, and 5-11, 165-pound senior flanker Curtis Harris -- will be playing their first high school game today when the Panthers open against Riverdale Baptist at Fletcher Field at 7:30 p.m.

"I played a lot of street ball, but I feel I've learned enough to play at this level," said Harris. "We'll be a lot better than people think. When I came here, I hoped we'd get a team and we did. A lot of guys here said they were going to play and they came out. People will see the new Phelps."

Another senior, Jonathan McCray, has a little experience. A wide receiver, he played at Spingarn last year while attending Phelps (Phelps students were allowed to play at another school). He said he wanted to concentrate on his trade -- digital electronics -- this year and probably would not have played football if Phelps had not fielded a team.

"I was just interested in my trade, but I was glad they brought football back," said McCray, one of a half-dozen players expected to play both offense and defense.

"I thought there would be problems fielding a team at first and I was surprised to see so many guys come out," he added. "A lot of my friends have told me how bad Phelps used to be. They tell me we'll be just as bad. But we'll have a surprise for them. Wait and see."