Georges Monga Mande slipped his hulking frame out of a classroom and into the quiet hallways of Clarksburg High, looking to put off the start of a biology test with a meandering trip to the water fountain.
That role had become especially important in the months since the 2021 season ended. The Coyotes, often a mid-level Montgomery County program, were set to graduate 20 seniors and faced a drastic shortage of both bodies and talent.
“At senior night [last year], when we looked around and saw how large that group was and how small our junior class was, we realized we were going to have to do something,” Isaac Williams said. “That was the moment we realized we were going to have to be a lot more proactive.”
So the Williams brothers set out looking for players. They spent time around PE classes, keeping an eye out for a combination Ernest Williams described as “size and confidence.” When they found a student who might fit the bill, they offered rewards both concrete and abstract: We can give you playing time, and we might give you the opportunity to change your future.
They had worked hard to get a dozen or so potential new players to come out for the team’s spring workouts. Now Isaac Williams had another potential player walking right by him in an empty hallway. Being proactive is one thing; getting lucky is another.
“Hey, what grade are you in?” Williams asked.
“Ninth,” Monga Mande answered.
Williams’s eyes lit up. This kid had to be about 6-foot-3 and 250 pounds.
“You know anything about football?” Williams asked.
Monga Mande did not. To that point in his life, the teenager had no connection to the game. Never played it, never watched it, never thought about it. Sure, people often recommended it to him because of his size, but Monga Mande never considered playing. Once a year, his sister would turn on the Super Bowl when it was time for the halftime performance; that was the extent of his football exposure.
After their conversation, Monga Mande considered Williams’s pitch. He was looking for a change in his life. Two days later, he stayed after school to work out with the team.
The 2022 Clarksburg Coyotes have not won a game this season but are built in part on that desire for transformation, an urge to try something new. They have 12 players, including four starters, on the varsity roster who had never played organized football before this fall. Facing some of the best programs in Maryland from week to week, the Coyotes rely on a different type of commitment from players who are learning the game as they go.
When in high school, few things can change your day-to-day life quicker than joining a sports team. That’s especially true for football, which presents constant physical and mental challenges.
The sport requires commitment but also something primal, the Coyotes say. Your body and mind must get harder. Heightened intensity is required. You occasionally have to get angry. You have to tell your arms and legs and neck and chest to do things that feel nonsensical and, at times, extraordinary. Throw yourself at a body or a ball. Plant yourself in front of a runaway back or a hard-charging end. Put your faith — and often your safety — in the hands of 10 teammates.
It is an unnatural game. But each new Clarksburg player had his own reason for choosing it.
For Monga Mande, football represented an opportunity to get in shape. Growing up as a big kid, he despised going to the doctor because he believed they would nitpick things he was doing wrong. He was tired of that feeling and viewed football as a way to make it go away.
Junior defensive lineman Kurt Hull chose to play after he started working out during the pandemic. He entered his sophomore year with more muscle but a lingering sense of boredom. “I needed something to fill up my time and let me do something productive,” Hull said. “I had nothing to do, and I wanted to learn some new things.”
He tried out for the wrestling team last winter and enjoyed it. So when Isaac Williams approached him during a workout and asked whether he would consider football, he jumped at the opportunity.
Nigel Knight-Tabron was a Clarksburg basketball player for three years before he considered playing football. Some uncles and cousins had played and he long had been interested, but his mother had concerns about safety. Ahead of his senior year, his last real chance to play organized football, he convinced her.
“I think a little bit of me just wanted that stereotypical high school football experience,” Knight-Tabron said.
Freshman Andrew Shin, unlike some of his teammates, has been playing football for a long time, mostly on the offensive line. But as he got closer to high school, he thought about playing quarterback. People always told him he had a good arm, but he found it difficult to believe he could man the game’s most glamorous position.
“It’s hard to take the idea seriously,” Shin said. “It’s almost like a dream.”
At the encouragement of friends, he attended a seven-on-seven event in the spring. With no knowledge of technique, footwork or play calls, Shin played well enough to keep his dream alive and spent the summer practicing. By the time August arrived, he realized he had a chance to be Clarksburg’s starting quarterback.
On the first day of full-contact practice, Knight-Tabron took a hit and immediately thought his mother had been right.
“I got that first hit, and my head started hurting a little bit, and I thought: ‘Oh no, I have a concussion. Day 1, and I got a concussion,’ ” he said. “But I was actually fine.”
Over time, Knight-Tabron didn’t mind getting hit. He enjoyed the spike of adrenaline that often came with it. The more he practiced, the less flinchy his body became.
Jonathan Travis, another senior wide receiver playing football for the first time, also found that his initial notions faded away.
“I thought it was just concussions all the time, people knocking off your chin strap all the time,” Travis said. “But it wasn’t that bad.”
Not all of the new players settled in as the first game approached. Monga Mande, playing on both the offensive and defensive lines, briefly questioned his decision.
“For a good week, I was wondering if this was really for me,” he said. “First of all, there was a lot of screaming — and I do not like getting yelled at. I would line up wrong and get yelled at. And sometimes it wasn’t even my mistake but I would get yelled at for it.”
Not only was the sophomore bothered by the intensity of the atmosphere, but he was unsure whether he would be able to summon a fire within himself.
“Even though I look mean and I may look intimidating, I’m a nice guy,” Monga Mande said. “I don’t want to hurt people for no reason. If there’s no reason to hurt somebody or get hurt yourself, I don’t see the point in it. I think logically.”
He was able to access that side of himself only through self-talk and his headphones. Before a game or a practice, he would listen to musical artists such as rapper Chief Keef to raise his energy. With time, he felt he belonged on the field.
For Shin, the biggest change was embracing his role as a leader. The young quarterback was barely comfortable being under center, let alone exhibiting the communication and motivation skills to helm an offense.
“It’s been weird for me,” Shin said. “My teammates even told me, ‘You have to command the team.’ I started to take that to heart.”
Despite his inexperience, Shin seemed to be the perfect quarterback for this Clarksburg group: a freshman tiptoeing his way into the unknown, backed by a roster of players with something to prove.
For a team that faced a much more challenging early-season learning curve than most, the Coyotes were done no favors by their schedule: Four of their first six opponents had won state championships. It would be a trial by fire.
In the locker room before the opener, a home game against Seneca Valley, Monga Mande found himself unable to speak much. The sophomore gets quiet when he gets nervous, and this may have been the most nervous he had been in his life. “I will be honest: I was terrified,” Monga Mande said. “Like, terrified. I was scared.”
But at the first snap of the game, Monga Mande said, his nerves dissipated. “I got hit, and I thought ‘Oh, that’s it?’ ” Monga Mande said.
That game against Seneca Valley did not go well for the Coyotes, and neither have the six games since. Clarksburg is 0-7 after Friday’s 40-7 loss to Bethesda-Chevy Chase, having been outscored 321-42.
It can be hard to maintain a positive outlook amid all that losing. Frustration piles up, and the workload can feel less worthwhile.
“Nobody wants to get to that point where you’re not having a lot of success and you start to lose your team,” Isaac Williams said. “We try to tell them how unique this team is, but they don’t have anything to really base it off of.”
Most of the new players admit it can be hard to maintain perspective when you’re down by several touchdowns. But the results are not what resonates most about their first months on the football field.
Shin talks about his future in the game, how he looks forward to being an experienced and confident senior quarterback one day. Hull describes how it feels to tackle a running back and hear his name over the loudspeakers. The wideouts, Travis and Knight-Tabron, know every detail of their first receptions, made just months before their high school graduations.
And Monga Mande mentions the NFL game he watched in September, the first of his life. He found himself studying the offensive linemen. Their technique, he says, was beautiful.