The multipurpose field where Bell Multicultural High’s football team practices is just 80 yards long and full of commotion. Neighborhood kids are often seen playing soccer on it as the Griffins train in busy Columbia Heights.
It belongs to linebacker John Stoddard, whose mouth and motor are always running for Bell (8-1) in a standout season that continues Friday against McKinley Tech in the Stripes division of the D.C. Interscholastic Athletic Association playoffs.
“Initially, you almost want to harness him, but then you see how he plays and the impact that he has on his teammates, and you can’t help but embrace it,” Coach Daniel Tyson said. “He’s our energy guy, the heartbeat of our program, and his overt passion for the game of football propels us forward as a team.”
Despite his relatively slender build at 6 feet, 170 pounds, Stoddard is a heat-seeking tackler and a willing blocker from his hybrid H-back/tight end position on offense. He’s a constant presence on the field — and in opponents’ ears.
“I’ve just always loved the game of football, and when you really love it, you just got to play it the way you know how to play it,” Stoddard said. “Where I grew up, only rules was playing hard and talking [trash], so that’s what I do.”
Stoddard’s mother, Lizzie Stoddard-Hughes, and stepfather, James Hughes, say a scary moment is what prompted John’s free-flowing confidence. When Stoddard was 9 years old, he was struck by a car while playing pickup football in the street. While everyone panicked, Stoddard smiled at his mother and said: “I’m fine, ma. Remember, I am Superman.”
While a trip to the hospital didn’t confirm his status as a superhero, his X-rays and scans showed he suffered no serious injuries.
“After that he got a pretty big head,” Hughes said, laughing. “He started walking around the house calling himself Superman. There was nothing that you could really tell him from that point on.”
From Stoddard’s vantage point, he developed his gift of gab a few years later while practicing with his older brother’s middle school team while he was in elementary school.
Even though he was younger, Stoddard emerged as one of the best players on the team — which provided license to taunt.
“When you’re younger or smaller, people always got something to say about what you can and can’t do,” Stoddard said. “At first you kind of just got to take it, but once you prove ’em wrong, ain’t no letting them off easy. You got to give it back to them times 10.”
Trash talk can be an art form, and some people just naturally have it. Stoddard is one of them.
He says he never spends time planning or pre-writing anything he will say on the field — for fear he will “sound like a square.” It all comes naturally, like a freestyle rap.
Stoddard does have skills as a rapper, too. Before each game, he listens to a song he made with a friend who died in June. Other than that, he prefers to stay radio silent in the buildup to the game’s start so he can think about all the plays he’s about to make.
During his first game with Bell in 2018, the team clung to a 26-25 lead late in the fourth quarter against Harrison Central (Ohio). Needing one final stop on the goal line to secure the win, Stoddard, then a freshman, pointed at the opposing team and yelled out his intentions.
“These boys ain’t serious about getting no win,” he said. “I’ma go get this stop real quick. Then we heading back to the crib to celebrate.”
Seconds later, he backed it up, blowing up the play in the backfield to secure a victory for the Griffins.
As a senior leader, Stoddard has become a walking sound bite. Such as when he explained what it meant for the Griffins to knock off a private school following a 22-14 win over Maret on Sept. 3.
“People don’t really understand why we get so hyped about beating a private school, like we don’t hear all that talk from them dudes saying we ain’t this and we ain’t that,” Stoddard said. “But I’m looking at the scoreboard, and it’s saying we won, so I guess they will realize that we really are like that.”
But Stoddard’s talk isn’t reserved for just wins or big plays. He’s philosophical and fair-minded about how it should be done.
“If I talk trash and you cook me, I’m going to remember you and I’m going to give you your props on the field, off the field or wherever I see you,” Stoddard said. “I ain’t a hater — if they working me, I’m going to give them their props, but then I’m coming right back for some more.
“That’s what separates me, I think. There’s always going to be a time where somebody gets a play off on your head, but can they do it more than once? Because I’m going to keep coming all game. I’m going to keep demanding their best.”