The narrow streets around Howard University's football field filled up bumper to bumper with cars unloading football players in white practice uniforms. It was evening, and this was a team in need of a field with lights, which Howard has. Who were these guys, some Howard students wondered, scrambling around for parking places, marching down the sidewalks two and three abreast in full gear heading toward Greene Stadium?
This was no ordinary team even if it doesn't have lights on its own field. This was an undefeated team (10-0). This was a team that on Sunday afternoon in Oklahoma will play for a national championship. These were the Fightin' Knights of Montgomery College-Rockville, who will have their shot at the National Junior College Athletic Association title against No. 1 Coffeyville (Kan.) Community College, which has long been a JuCo giant.
"It's really amazing, being a non-scholarship school, that we've made it this far," said Brian Reilly, a reserve end who had to watch practice. Because of some knocked-out teeth, Reilly won't be able to play but he won't miss the big game. Only 45 will be allowed by the Mid-America Bowl to suit up, but Montgomery is taking all 68 of its players. Veterans of back-roads bus trips, they have never flown to a game.
"I don't know what to expect, but we're ready to play," said Dwayne Freeman, a tall, fast receiver from Hagerstown, Md. This season, Montgomery has rolled on the blue highways of the East and South, but now wheels up to Tulsa to face a school, Coffeyville, that doesn't know the meaning of the word small.
"They're very quick, and on turf will be even quicker," said Phil Martin, who has assembled his best team in nine years as coach at Montgomery, where he also teaches television production. Following the Dream
Once a quarterback at Sherwood High and in the semipros, Martin has gone to what he calls "full-blast passing" this year with 6-foot, 200-pound quarterback John Kaleo, who has thrown 32 touchdown passes and only nine interceptions to catch the attention of Division I recruiters, including those from Maryland. He won the JuCo equivalent of the Heisman Trophy.
"A real find," Martin said.
Kaleo, from Bowie High School, attributes his success to teammates and coaches, including Mike Hohensee, former Washington Federals quarterback and currently coach of the Washington Commandos of Arena football and a volunteer assistant with Montgomery. "He knows what it takes to make it to the show," Kaleo said.
That's the dream of many of the Montgomery players -- to follow the success of ex-Knight Gene Thomas, now a receiver for Maryland, and make it to Division I-A or I-AA. Being it's a two-year school, Montgomery football players are always coming and going. "It's a revolving door -- constantly," Martin said. "It's always a rebuilding year. Sometimes it's a re-rebuilding year."
It can be a second chance for an overlooked player like Kaleo. As a high school senior, he tried out for the Big 33 all-star game, Maryland vs. Pennsylvania, but didn't make it; a coach he impressed was Martin, who happened to be watching practice held at Montgomery. "If he made it, he might have been at some other school," Martin said. As it turned out, Kaleo said he is doing better in the classroom as well: "Now I know what college is all about."
Some players at Montgomery have improved their academics, which they had to do to qualify for Division I. "It's not all about football," said Derek Ruffin, a linebacker who said he too wants to play in Division I and academically is better for having attended Montgomery. "I couldn't be more proud of anybody," Martin said.
To be eligible for a sophomore season at the school, a player must have a 2.0 grade point average in 24 credits. Martin said the requirement has done in a number of his players over the years, and that 24 sophomores this season is unusually high.
In the past, he said, Montgomery tended to get players who "sucked up their pride and came here. Now it's getting to be a privilege to play here."
There's a tradition building. For example, behind one end zone of the Montgomery field that has wooden stands on one side is a large rock, put there in 1983 by some players and painted -- gold or maroon, the school colors -- annually by team members. Players this week talked about "loving it at The Rock."
Martin operates out of a small office in the physical education building. He had 16 messages on his phone when he walked in the other afternoon. The phone kept ringing. One caller was a prospect. "You went to Ohio State?" said Martin, his voice rising with interest.
On the wall was a tacked-up message from Johnny Majors, the Tennessee coach, offering "best wishes" against Coffeyville. Also, small pennants of some of the little powers that be: Chowan College, Lees-McRae. This was the first season that Montgomery beat Lees-McRae, located in Banner Elk, N.C. The Knights traveled in a bus and three vans.
On the way home, around Hillsville, Va., a van driven by Hohensee hit a deer. Another van gave out with engine trouble. Martin had to circle back, squeeze some players into the equipment van, drop off others at a motel and drive back for them in the morning. Hohensee and fellow volunteer assistant Ned Ahnell gave exactly the same reasons why they do what they do: friendship with the other coaches and "love of the game." Coffeyville Can Do
Montgomery and Coffeyville exchanged five game tapes. On the tapes, Martin has seen "an explosive offense" similar to his, a genuine worry. "I'm really hoping our defense can turn it up a notch," he said.
Coffeyville has a quarterback with Kaleo-type numbers, three receivers with more than 500 yards each, two strong runners and a name to remember: Prentice Rhone, a fast kick returner and hard-hitting strong safety. Watch him. Currently, five former Red Ravens are in the NFL: Mike Rozier, Jeff Wright, Dean Hamel, Maurice Douglass, Mel Gray. (Buster Douglas played basketball for Coffeyville in 1978-79).
At the end of practice at Howard the other night, Martin gathered his players to remind them of other practices this week -- under the lights at Maryland and Georgetown. He told them they'd have to get up early Friday for the flight. He told them things about the Mid-America Bowl, which Montgomery played in and lost in 1986 although not for a national title. The game will be played again at the Union High School stadium.
The players broke the midfield meeting with the cry, "Goin' to Tulsa!"