SCRANTON, Pa. — At 7:30 a.m. on the first day of spring football practice at Lackawanna College, Mark Duda stood on the third floor of the players’ dormitory and pursed his lips around a small black whistle.

With a gleeful expression, Duda, the winningest active coach in the National Junior College Athletic Association, took a deep breath and blew five earsplitting chirps.

“Wake up!” Duda roared to the 100-plus 18- and 19-year-olds who had been asleep in their twin-size beds.

The start of another football season had the coach excited, but Duda, 58, didn’t wake his players for an early practice or weightlifting session. Instead, he was there to get them up in time to make their 8 a.m. classes.

As spring practice takes place at big-time college football programs across the country, the scene at Lackawanna offers a distinct contrast. Academics are not only a focal point at this small, two-year junior college in downtown Scranton; they are the potential ticket out for former high school stars hanging on to dreams of playing Division I football. Players end up at this school for a variety of reasons, but for the majority it’s because their grades or test scores kept them from attending a major university.

Lackawanna, which has established itself as a junior college powerhouse and finished undefeated last season, draws about a sixth of its roster from the D.C. area each season and is the closest option for DMV stars — it’s a four-hour drive from Washington and a two-hour drive from Philadelphia — looking for one final chance to make it to the big time.

“Our guys are more of the long shots,” said Duda, who played at the University of Maryland and in the NFL and has been Lackawanna’s head coach since 1994. “When we got them, they were pretty damn good. It’s not like they weren’t good on the field. They were phenomenal players. They just weren’t phenomenal students.”

Duda and his players are aware of the stigmas that surround junior colleges, which often struggle financially and whose football teams have a reputation for welcoming players with behavioral issues, as depicted on the Netflix series “Last Chance U.” The players don’t want to be at Lackawanna; they need Lackawanna, and spring practice represents a critical part of their recruitment, with college coaches lining the sidelines in Scranton and searching for the next hidden talent from this makeshift farm system. The players hope to earn scholarship offers and perhaps even follow in the footsteps of junior college-to-NFL success stories such as Cam Newton, Alvin Kamara and Aaron Rodgers.

Duda, who has already been elected to the NJCAA Hall of Fame, knows it’s possible, given the 400-plus players he has sent to Division I and the 15 who have eventually gone on to the NFL. But he starts with more modest goals: Get his players to class and help them earn the grades to become an NCAA academic qualifier.

Before they can get out, it becomes clear on this brisk morning in late March, they have to get up.

That’s why he sits in his blue Ford Edge in front of the entrance to the dorm nearly every morning, waiting for his sleep-deprived players to pass him on their way to class a block up the hill.

“Oh, look, here’s another happy soul!” Duda shouted playfully to one player, giving each a full-hearted wave from the car.

Most can barely muster a glance, their hoodies closed tightly around their faces in the cold northeast Pennsylvania air. But some, if only for a second, return his energy with a greeting of their own.

‘Suck it up, do the work’

One of those cheerful smiles belonged to Norval Black, an 18-year-old Northwest High graduate from Germantown, Md. Black, who is Lackawanna’s leading returning wide receiver, wore a Maryland flag headband as he walked up the cracked sidewalks. It was a reminder of where he came from and the goals he still hopes to achieve.

Black ended up at Lackawanna, he said, because of a mistake he made at age 14. He paid so little attention to his grades at Northwest, where he was a gifted two-sport athlete, that by the time he had finished his sophomore year, it was mathematically impossible for him to reach the minimum 2.3 GPA required of a scholarship athlete. (Players also have to earn a corresponding SAT or ACT score to gain eligibility.) He said he didn’t realize it was such an issue until college coaches would tell him that they liked him as a player but couldn’t spend time talking to him because of his grades.

“It is literally my fault,” said Black, who posted a 2.9 GPA last semester, slightly better than the team average of 2.8 and clear of the 2.5 needed to transfer to a Division I school. “Me coming here, I had to face it. Suck it up, do the work. … My whole life I have just been wanting to push myself to get that offer.”

Black is majoring in business studies, one of the two majors — along with professional studies — offered to Lackawanna football players through the Football Academic Learning Community (FALC) program. The football team limits its majors to eliminate the possibility that any credits won’t transfer to an interested university. The classes have the same curriculum standards as they do for all Lackawanna students, most of whom are there to complete their associate’s or bachelor’s degrees, but the FALC classes are filled solely with football players.

Duda is only able to grant one full athletic scholarship each year, so even after players receive financial aid, most pay some part of the school’s $14,850 tuition. It’s far from the near-automatic full scholarships of Division I.

While Black knew early on he’d have to attend Lackawanna to keep his dream alive, others, such as running back Rashard Jackson, find out at the last minute. Jackson, a Maryland native who graduated from Riverdale Baptist last year, signed with the University of Massachusetts in February 2018, but four days before he was supposed to leave, he found out his SAT score was too low.

“There was a point where I didn’t know if I even wanted to play football anymore,” Jackson said.

Jackson tried again and fell short by one point on his next standardized test, so off to Scranton he went. Most of the time, Lackawanna coaches will try to convince players who are teetering along the eligibility line during senior year to put Lackawanna on their radar as a backup option. But most kids don’t care to listen — until they have no other choice.

“We are the Grim Reaper in January and Mother Teresa in July,” Duda said.

‘We’re a family’

Although Duda is proud of the success stories among his former players, there are many more who don’t reach the next level.

Some can’t handle the academic pressure and decide junior college isn’t for them. Others, Duda said, exhibit a “me-first” mentality that keeps them from buying into the team’s standards. Others can’t get enough exposure at the junior college level or simply don’t impress coaches enough to earn an offer.

On average, Lackawanna officials said, the college places 30 to 40 players per year at four-year schools. Some then continue on to NFL careers, as Arizona Cardinals wide receiver Kevin White and Indianapolis Colts guard Mark Glowinski did.

“We are proud of our guys no matter what they do,” said Duda, who had one player graduate and open an ice cream shop, another go on to make music videos for a living and several study to become teachers.

After completing his morning classes and scarfing down an omelet at the school’s cafeteria, Black knocked on the door to Duda’s office in the student union just before 2:30 p.m. He was coming from his basic writing skills midterm and had news for offensive coordinator Josh Pardini and wide receivers coach Mark McMaster.

“I passed my midterm!” he exclaimed. He had earned an 88 — his highest score of the semester — and the assistant coaches offered hearty congratulations.

“They just need a guy with an extra arm around them,” Pardini said. “That’s us.”

At the end of all this, Lackawanna coaches see Division I as Black’s next step. Black said he hopes to end up at a major program in California or, his ideal scenario, at the University of Maryland. He’s waiting for coaches to talk to him.

With 15 minutes until he had to leave for practice, Black raced back to his dorm and threw on a white Maryland Crab Bowl T-shirt as rap music blared. One of his roommates started opening doors down the hall, playfully yelling at his teammates to hurry up. Black shook his head: “Man, [junior college] just brings everyone together. We’re a family.”

For years, Black said, he and his teammates saw football as more of a business than anything else. Now they realize that if this is their last chance to reach the next level, they should at least enjoy themselves. Last year, Lackawanna led the NJCAA in penalty yards because of excessive celebrations, at the encouragement of the coaches.

“Football doesn’t last forever, but I wish it did,” Black said.

‘Let’s get these kids some offers’

Black and his teammates exited the dorm and started their walk to practice, which was a little less than a mile and took them past several rundown buildings downtown, under an overpass and over railroad tracks. About halfway there, a man in a van drove by, rolled down his window and shouted to the group.

“Hey!” the man said. “Are any of you kids going D-I?”

Without hesitation, one yelled back, “We’re all tryin’ to go D-I!”

They arrived at the Riverfront Sports Complex, where practice takes place horizontally across three full indoor soccer fields, without any hash marks. Duda, who doubles as the defensive line coach, was already inside setting up drills. He has been at every Lackawanna practice and game since he was the defensive coordinator in 1993, the first year the program existed. He became head coach a year later.

Duda has been offered positions at bigger schools, but he turned them down. He and his coaching staff feel a sense of pride whenever one of their players goes on to play at a place such as West Virginia, Oklahoma, Syracuse or Penn State. If getting players to one of those programs means monitoring study hall, printing an essay in the coaches’ office or helping work through a math problem, it’s worth it, he said.

“If we don’t love the kids, what are we doing here?” said Duda, who combed through some 1,500 applicants for the football program last season and completed background checks on every player. No one with a criminal record gets in, he said. Instead, Duda accepts kids who struggled academically, didn’t get enough exposure in high school or were previously in Division I and needed time in junior college to find their bearings.

All come together as a collective unit at Lackawanna’s first spring practice, and from 3:30 to 5:30 p.m., their talent was on display. Running backs bowled over linebackers, and pass rushers executed swim moves against offensive linemen. Some had bad days; Black was hard on himself for jumping too soon during one-on-one drills.

On the sideline were rows of players in street clothes who missed a mandatory study hall, morning run or positional meeting. The penalty at Lackawanna for missing one academic activity is being held out for a whole week of practice.

As practice came to an end, Duda stood in the middle of a huddle, looking like a proud father. He had gotten his players to class, and the first spring practice was in the books. Now, he would turn his attention to the next step: “Let’s get these kids some offers.”

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