"Listen up, men."
Coach Danny Hayes had emerged from his office and immediately silenced the 45 eager football players sprawled across the mud-stained, brown-tiled locker room floor, their clean game jerseys creating a pallet of black and gold.
"This is our first day of our journey: Four games in 12 days. This is how it's going to be -- there are no other options."
Hayes kept his tone steady as every pair of eyes in the room stared at him.
"It won't be easy, it's an obstacle, one of many obstacles you'll face in your life. . . . You know what time it is: Time to go out there and win."
Gwynn Park's undefeated football team filed out of its locker room to begin the most arduous stretch in school history. The sniper shootings that postponed or canceled most high school sports events in the Washington area last month had forced a 23-day gap between games. In trying to reschedule all the postponements in time for the state playoffs, officials had little choice but to ask Gwynn Park and other Prince George's County schools to play four times from Oct. 29 to Nov. 9.
For the Yellow Jackets, who at one point were not allowed to practice indoors or outdoors for eight days, the wait for a chance at the first unbeaten regular season in school history had been interminable. Said senior cornerback Jason Hunter: "I was scared that we wouldn't play again." But after the arrest of two suspects, the sniper incidents were quickly forgotten. A home game with Laurel awaited. Finally.
The team's best player, senior Wesley Jefferson, a 6-foot-2, 239-pound middle linebacker, was the first to set foot outside. Serious, with a confident stride, he ignored rain that cascaded hard over the line of trees that borders the football field, knocking off red, orange and yellow leaves. The 60-year-old school is a few hundred yards from the well-traveled intersection of Routes 5 and 301 in Brandywine, but zoning regulations have ensured that acreage across the highway remains farmland and the closest strip mall is six miles away in Waldorf.
Junior defensive ends Jahiri and Rafiq Gunthorpe were the fifth and sixth players to feel the rain. The twins are not identical, but Hayes says he can't tell them apart. Outgoing, but not in a disrespectful manner, they draw a crowd of classmates at their cafeteria lunch table and they have the highest grade-point averages on the team. Both are 6 feet 2 and have been mainstays on a defense that had given up more than 18 points only once in its five games before the season was stopped.
William Little was the third-to-last player to emerge from the dimly lit hallway and the least well-known. The 5-8, 187-pound nose guard is a freshman and he carried himself like one, blending in quietly and playing only on special teams.
During the long break Little had been told to clean out yellow locker No. 2120 in the room where his junior varsity teammates dressed and move his gear into orange locker No. 114 in the varsity locker room. W. LITTLE had been written in black marker on a piece of masking tape affixed to the top of No. 114. Since the move, Little would often slyly wink as he walked past his former teammates, his backpack flung over the baggy T-shirts he favors.
"I was so happy when I got to put my stuff in here. First thing I did was hang my helmet. I felt that I made it, that Coach Hayes had faith in me to bring me up," Little said. "This is what you work for, to make varsity, and I did it as a freshman. But now I've got to earn the faith of my teammates."
Little mostly watched from the bench as the game was much closer than Gwynn Park expected. The Yellow Jackets took a 6-0 lead when Jefferson, who makes occasional appearances at fullback, scored on a two-yard run. In the fourth quarter, Jefferson got caught in a blitz and Traves Matthews ran 15 yards untouched to give Laurel a 7-6 lead with 4 minutes 57 seconds to play. But Hunter returned the ensuing kickoff 99 yards for a touchdown to put the Yellow Jackets back ahead.
After Bryan Clagett's kickoff, Laurel returner Carlos Hill, in his hurry to get upfield, ran ahead of his wedge and right into the arms of Little, who had found his way through the rain and the taller Laurel blockers. He wrapped himself around Hill's waist and brought him down. The play went largely unrecognized by the 47 spectators, but it provided special meaning for Little: It was his first varsity tackle.
Gwynn Park's defense, even though the cold and constant driving rain left Rafiq Gunthorpe's hands numb, then held twice. Laurel managed two more points when Yellow Jackets junior quarterback Lamar Hyson took an intentional safety on the last play.
The combination of the weather and the first game action in more than three weeks took a toll. "Being in game shape is something you can't just turn on and off," Jefferson said later.
Afterward, a Gwynn Park assistant coach recorded the 12-9 final score, the team's sixth consecutive victory, in red ink on the oversized schedule hanging next to the locker room door. But by then the players had already started to look ahead.
"We don't have time to feel good about this game; as far as I'm concerned, it's over," said Jefferson, who made eight tackles and assisted on five more. "This win won't mean much if we lose to Central."
That game would be played in less than 96 hours on Nov. 2.
The day after the Laurel game, the team held a light practice indoors. Hayes didn't want the players to have contact drills with a game so soon and instead ran his players through weightlifting exercises.
The next day, Oct. 31, the Yellow Jackets returned to the field. It was Halloween but none of the players was planning to go out after practice. "No mistakes," Jefferson barked to no one in particular while standing next to Hayes on the sideline as the second team worked on formation drills. "You've got to know. You can't waste time thinking about where to go. You've got to know."
Jefferson has more than 125 tackles in each of the past three seasons, and a two-inch stack of mail in Hayes's office from college football programs. Fifteen scholarship offers -- including ones from Maryland, Virginia, Miami and Ohio State -- have already arrived. Virginia Coach Al Groh had watched the Laurel game from the running track in the rain as his assistant held an umbrella over him.
As he does every school day, Jefferson spent the last period before practice working as a student aide for Hayes, a physical education teacher. Jefferson's duties vary. He picks up and organizes Hayes's mail. He grades papers based on a key provided by Hayes. He sweeps out the newspapers, dirty socks, ripped T-shirts and empty sports drink bottles from the locker room.
On the day before playing Central, he and Hayes sat in front of a TV watching tape. Jefferson grabbed the VCR's remote control and rewound plays three times so he could scrutinize each one: How does the offensive line move? How fast are the running backs? Do the receivers run their routes as hard when it's a running play?
"If I didn't want to go to practice, I wouldn't worry about it because Wes knows what to do," Hayes says. "He's got it taken care of. What he says, goes."
The Halloween practice lasted nearly two and a half hours and players didn't file into the weight room until shortly after 6. They clustered in front of the television to watch the same tapes Jefferson had seen earlier. Hayes pointed out Central's tendencies and vulnerabilities until noticing a player with his eyes closed.
"You shut your eyes again in one of my meetings and you'll go run a mile," Hayes said, growing angrier with each word. "And I'll guarantee you'll never do it again. . . . I don't coach to win. I coach to put you in school. You see that guy on film getting blown five yards off the line of scrimmage? Where's he going? Nowhere. If you can't dominate, then colleges have no use for you. I'll go 0-10 if that means I put you guys in school. Now wake up, this is the future we are talking about."
Hayes's entire football career has taken place inside the county -- he played high school football at Bladensburg and collegiately at Bowie State University and remains chiseled. He has been at Gwynn Park since 1998, amassing a 37-16 record, 29-4 the past three seasons. He tapes motivational phrases throughout the locker room.
THE QUALITY OF A PERSON'S LIFE IS IN DIRECT PROPORTION TO THEIR COMMITMENT TO EXCELLENCE
When he received a note from a junior varsity player's teacher that the player did not do his homework, Hayes looked sternly at the sophomore. "I get another one of these, and I'll clean out your locker myself," he told the player. "It only takes one second for me to cut you. Remember that."
Hayes, 42, doesn't swear at his players, and criticism is mixed with praise.
"Discipline, focus, and hard work. That's what my parents taught me, and that's what I try to pass on to my team," said Hayes, whose parents, Jessie, a retired custodian, and Marie, a retired magazine layout designer, attend most games. "As a coach, it's about teaching, and what would I be teaching these kids if I was using bad language and always telling them what they are doing wrong?"
Hayes tries to get to his Fort Washington home early enough to play tackle football with his son Danny, 5, before spending time with daughter Channing -- a sophomore at Gwynn Park -- and his wife of 15 years, Keisha. At about 10 p.m., after everyone is in bed, Hayes usually slips downstairs and watches game film until 1 or 2 in the morning. He draws an opponent's formations and gives them to his players at the next day's practice.
By Nov. 2, the rain that had hammered the players during the Laurel game was gone. The Gwynn Park defense was relentless against Central. Jahiri had two sacks and finished with six tackles, and Rafiq had five tackles. Jefferson had a sack and a game-high 12 tackles, seven unassisted.
Little, who had played only special teams against Laurel, got a chance at nose guard because junior starter William Daniels sat out the game with a right shoulder injury. Entering the game in the second quarter, Little made five tackles and recovered a fumble. In the third quarter, he chased quarterback William Scott out of the pocket and dove into his left leg for his first sack. As Scott limped off the field. Hayes met Little on the sideline and gave him a hug.
Still, Hayes was concerned. Gwynn Park had won, 20-0, but his offense was not crisp. Without the usual week between games, there wasn't much time to fix problems.
A scheduled off day followed on Nov. 3, and Hayes went to church and spent the afternoon with his family. Jefferson had organized a players-only workout at the school that afternoon. The entire team came -- Jefferson couldn't remember a time when a teammate had missed one of these sessions -- and ran eight laps around the school's track. Late that night, Hayes turned his attention to football, watching game film to prepare for the upcoming week.
The Yellow Jackets dedicated the majority of their Nov. 4 practice to the suddenly ineffective offense. Hayes had Hyson fill the air with footballs until darkness made it impossible to distinguish a player's position.On Nov. 5 against a winless Fairmont Heights team that had given up an average of 27.3 points a game, the offense was still a problem. Hyson completed only four passes and was intercepted twice. The Yellow Jackets finished with less than 100 yards rushing. But Jefferson and the defense dominated. He and Rafiq Gunthorpe each made a game-high eight tackles as the Yellow Jackets won, 21-0, to move to within a victory of a playoff spot and the 3A/2A/1A title.
After the game, the Gunthorpes returned to their uncle's home less than a mile from school and headed to the room they share. The latest pile of college mail rested on their beds, next to a dresser covered with trophies from their days playing youth sports. While some players talk about playing in the NFL, Jahiri and Rafiq hope to use football to pay for a college education.
"Coach Groh came here to see Wes, but that also gives players like myself an audition," said Jahiri Gunthorpe. The more than 75 pieces of mail he and his brother have received from the Cavaliers are folded neatly in a box under their beds. "That's something a lot of the players at other schools don't get."
The 16-year-olds grabbed their American History textbooks and notebooks and headed to the family room in the basement. While studying his notes about the causes of the Civil War for a test the next day, Jahiri squirmed in his chair every few minutes, his bruised left hip shooting a sharp, intermittent pain as if someone was poking him with a pen. He injured the hip last spring playing passing league football and the injury, which has not properly healed, was sore after three games in eight days. After a while, it became difficult to stay awake as he reviewed the underlined passages in his notes.
Rafiq, eating a candy bar while sitting at a round table nearby, sat with his right leg extended to alleviate the pain from having a pile of linemen fall on it during the Laurel game.
As the two reviewed the differences between the Kansas-Nebraska Act and the Compromise of 1850, a portrait of their mother, Jasmine, hung on a nearby wall. She had been a devout follower of her sons' youth sports endeavors, the twins say, signing them up for countless leagues. But while taking a nap in the family's Baltimore home on an April afternoon in 1999, the 44-year-old suffered two brain aneurysms and died while her sons played outside.
"I look at that picture all the time because our mother was such an inspiration to us," Rafiq said. "She always made sure we did our schoolwork before we went out and played."
The boys' father had left the family when they were 2 months old and the twins remained in Baltimore to live with their step-father. They moved in with their aunt and uncle, Larry and Margaret Patterson, before their eighth grade years.
"I think because of their previous upbringing, their mother instilled in them how important getting an education is," Larry Patterson said. "But with the schedule, four games in 12 days, I'm not concerned with them being physically exhausted as much as where the focus is. Is it six days a week of football or is it education?"
About 10 miles away in a two-bedroom apartment he shares with his father and younger brother, Little could barely contain his excitement. He had gotten his first start against Fairmont Heights. One tackle was followed by another. Then another. And another. Each time, praise bellowed from the sidelines, and Jefferson's acceptance came in the form of a pat on Little's helmet. Later in the game, Little timed a play perfectly, smacked the center's hand on the snap and caused a fumble that Gwynn Park recovered. Little flexed his muscles like a diminutive Incredible Hulk. On the sideline, Hayes shook his hand and Little's head disappeared under the cover of his teammates' arms as they congratulated him.
"I belong out there now," said Little, who sported a half-inch scar above his right eye.
Only one game remained. Gwynn Park was supposed to have its homecoming last month, but it was canceled. That meant a Nov. 9 game played at Douglass, nine miles away in Upper Marlboro, would serve as homecoming. And this would be no easy homecoming opponent: The Yellow Jackets had lost 15 consecutive times to the Eagles since the 1984 season.
The day before the game had been designated Spirit Day. Cheerleaders wore their uniforms, and students not wearing black and gold stood out. Student-made banners had been hung for a pep rally in the gym ready to greet the 1,484-member student body.
The Gunthorpes spent American History class, where they each recorded a perfect score on the exam they took two days before, studying the Civil War. Teacher Randy Wolfinger described the Union's military strategy against the South, known as the Anaconda plan: "The North's plan was to squeeze the South out like we're going to do to Douglass on Saturday."
At lunch, eight players gathered at an octagon-shaped table, having each bought two slices of pepperoni pizza, a cup of fruit and either apple or orange juice. Team rules prohibit them from drinking soda.
Tiffani Henry, a junior cheerleader who has been dating Rafiq for about a year, sat down at the table. Her eyelids were dotted with gold glitter and her brown pony tail was curled in a bun, and she asked Rafiq for money to buy tickets for the next day's homecoming dance.
"The last two weeks have been tough. We hardly ever see each other," she said. "Usually, we only get to see each other on Sundays. I'll be glad when the season's over."
The pep rally was in full swing by 1:30 with Hayes given a turn to speak.
"For number one, we don't have a homecoming this year, so we're going to do something about it," Hayes said, causing the students to cheer even louder. "We're going to go down to Douglass and have a party down there."
Then the football players were introduced one by one and strolled -- sometimes strutted -- the length of the gym escorted by a cheerleader or member of the dance team, as students sitting in the metal bleachers cheered and pounded their feet.
The second-to-last player in the procession, Little smiled broadly as he was escorted across the floor.
"I felt like I was totally accepted by my teammates and the rest of the students," Little said. "I was nervous. All I was thinking was: Please don't trip or fall."
Later that night, 13 players met at a nearby pizza joint for the night-before-the-game tradition the past several seasons: All you can eat pizza for $3.99. Everything but football dominated the conversation. Who's best at video games? Who's the best barber? What team member would win in a fight? Who's the toughest girl in school? And who has the best date for Saturday night's dance?
As Jefferson and the Gunthorpes looked on, Hunter turned the dinner into a stand-up routine, imitating how junior offensive tackle Derrick Williams, having lined up at fullback, had awkwardly shuffled into the end zone in scoring his first touchdown, against Fairmont Heights three days earlier. Williams responded by showing Hunter the shiny, silver ring he earned as a member of the school's state champion outdoor track and field team.
"You got one of these, Jason?" Williams said. "That's what I thought."
Two hours and 127 slices later -- including 13 consumed by the 5-7, 155-pound Hunter -- players loaded into their cars to make sure they were home by 9 when the team captains began telephone house checks.
"I'll remember going out for pizza as much as the football stuff because we develop so much as a team by just hanging out," Jefferson said. "The friends I've made on this team I'll have the rest of my life."
Twenty minutes before facing Douglass, Hayes gathered his players around him.
"This is the day you guys make history -- you don't have any choice," Hayes said. "It's been 18 years since we beat those guys -- 18 years. Think about that. I want you to take all the hatred you've ever had and unleash it."
Gwynn Park took a 7-0 lead on its second possession on a four-yard run by sophomore Joel Ellerbe. Clagett's 26-yard field goal in the second quarter made it 10-0 before Douglass scored a touchdown on an eight-yard run by junior quarterback Quentin Brown.
In the second half, Gwynn Park's passing offense finally clicked. Hyson threw two touchdown passes to senior Anthony Vaughn in a span of less than five minutes bridging the third and fourth quarters. Rafiq Gunthorpe had eight tackles and recovered a fumble. Jefferson had 10 tackles, including a sack. Jahiri Gunthorpe had six tackles, including a sack. And Little concluded his first season on the varsity with five tackles.
Gwynn Park finished its first unbeaten season with a 24-7 victory.
The Yellow Jackets had won all four games in the 12-day stretch. Serious injuries, which had been a concern with that schedule, for the most part did not materialize. And the Yellow Jackets finally had a little time to rest. They earned the fifth seed in the Maryland 3A playoffs, and will have had one entire week to prepare for tonight's quarterfinal at fourth-seeded Calvert (8-2).
"This whole thing was a test. We needed to find out how good we really were and how much we really wanted to make the playoffs," Jefferson said. "It didn't take a few players to win these games -- it took everybody, including the players who before this didn't play a lot. I learned more about this team in the past 12 days than I have all year."