The walk back to the bus was nearly silent, the line of football players snaking quietly among fans heading to their cars in the parking lot. When a team wins, everybody wants to relive the highlights. When it loses, there is not much to say.
Kennedy High's Coral Anderson had a slight limp in his step, his ankle still sore from spraining it in practice during the week. The Cavaliers' starting running back and most experienced player hadn't wanted to sit out, however, and he wasn't blaming it after another one-sided loss.
"My ego will be more sore [tomorrow] than my ankle," Anderson said.
Entering tonight's game against Rockville, Kennedy has lost 22 consecutive games, the longest active streak in the Washington area. As the losses mount, each week becomes a little more trying in the hallways of the Silver Spring school, game days become a little more pressured, and the dedication and attitude of each player -- crucial ingredients in this often-grueling sport -- are tested just a little more. And yet, with each defeat come lessons not often taught at the area's football powerhouses.
"I have said to some of the kids, 'At some point and time, you're going to be a better person' " because of this, Kennedy Principal Fred Lowenbach said. "That sounds trite to say, but a kid who is always used to winning everything, [he's] not always a wonderful human being."
Each fall weekend, teams at about 200 Washington area high schools suit up for varsity football games. Half the teams playing must lose every weekend. But at a small number of schools, including Kennedy, losing seems to be more than a 50-50 proposition. Central of Capitol Heights and Glen Burnie each have lost 21 consecutive games. Northeast D.C.'s Eastern has lost 14 consecutive games and has failed to score in six games this season.
But for a reason to keep going, these teams can look to Wakefield; the Arlington school ended a 24-game losing streak by beating Mount Vernon, 12-7, on Oct. 21.
Winning a game will be "a relief," said Kennedy junior co-captain Chimso Okoji, who plays offensive line and linebacker. "The weight of the world will be off our shoulders."
Like many of his teammates, Okoji had never played organized football before high school. Many of the region's top programs receive players who rise through organized youth leagues, some so regimented that the youth teams share the same nickname or pattern their playing style after the local high school. Kennedy Coach Tim McNeil estimated that 85 percent of his players have never put on football equipment until coming out for the Cavaliers' team.
While some programs can move quickly through the basics in preseason practice, McNeil said he spends more time on fundamental items, such as getting into a proper stance.
That's not to say other programs work any harder; entering the season, Okoji said, Kennedy's players believed their offseason workouts had them prepared for something big. Instead, the team is 0-7 and has been outscored, 263-13. As the streak has grown, Okoji and the rest of the Cavaliers have been the objects of ridicule from classmates the week before games.
"They take the approach that, 'Oh, you're just going to lose anyway,' " said Okoji, who also plays basketball and lacrosse for Kennedy but said he has never experienced anything like what he has gone through this season. "It's frustrating. But I don't let it bother me. They say, 'How many points are they going to score on you guys tonight? Fifty? Sixty?' I say, 'What sport do you play again? Why don't you come out and help?' "
Junior co-captain Rashad Crawford, a 6-foot, 310-pound lineman, said classmates' comments sting in the locker room.
"It's hard to cope with," said Crawford, who first played organized football last year as a member of the school's junior varsity team and believes that playing helps him stay in better shape. "In school, people like to say, 'Your football team [stinks]' or whatever. But I see that as motivation to just win. I really don't say anything [in reply]; I try to avoid it. I don't pay attention to it. I don't really care what anyone says. I believe in my team. We can win a game."
Reginald Galloway, drum major for the school's marching band, said the band enjoys playing at all of the team's home games.
"I respect how they keep on coming out, even though they're losing," Galloway said. "I appreciate their effort. I personally don't [tease players about their lack of success]. I know they've given their hearts and souls for the team. As long as they keep coming out, people can say they're horrible or whatever, but if you say that about the people who are playing, what's that say about the people who aren't playing?"
So far this season, the Cavaliers have had to settle for small steps of progress. After being shut out in its first four games, Kennedy scored its first touchdown when sophomore Marcos Adon got into the end zone on a quarterback sneak for the final score in a 20-6 loss to Paint Branch on Oct. 7.
Crawford took pride in the play, knowing that Adon -- who played wide receiver on the junior varsity last season, his first year of organized football -- had burrowed over the goal line behind his block. But though happy with finally scoring, some players were upset by their teammates' reactions.
"I got upset because our players were jumping up and down like we just won the game," Okoji said. "Down by 14, with nine minutes left, I thought we still had a chance to win the game."
Said Anderson: "A touchdown is a touchdown. To win is a big thing. It gave [some younger teammates] hope and a good feeling, but you have to finish the game."
Many of Anderson's teammates from his sophomore year, when he played on a 3-7 team, are no longer on the team. Some transferred to play football elsewhere, others simply quit the team, not wanting to stick things out. Anderson, though, said quitting has never occurred to him.
"I would be a coward to run out on something I started," Anderson said. "It was my decision to come to Kennedy and help build a program. I'm going to live by my decision."
On the eve of the Cavaliers' most recent game, McNeil brought the team into a huddle following practice. He told players it was time to start a tradition and "shock the world." They lost that game, 40-7 to Blair, but get another chance tonight. Kennedy's most recent victory was on Oct. 4, 2003, when the Cavaliers defeated Rockville, 19-0. McNeil hopes the streak will come to an end tonight against that same team.
"I'd like to believe this is the week," McNeil said. "But I've told myself that every week this season."