The cameras were set up for a dramatic reaction, ready for a YouTube moment of high-schoolers shocked into uncalculated excitement by an unexpected visit from a high-profile athlete.
“How’re you guys doing today?” he asked in the hopes of breaking it.
Still nothing. So just in case. . .
“I’m Bryce Harper, by the way.”
They knew that, of course. Recognition hadn’t been the problem, though the Washington Nationals star was behind a plaid button-down shirt and tweed cap instead of his normal No. 34 jersey and ballcap. Harper teamed with Gatorade to give the Southeast school a fully renovated locker room.
“We were all just stunned,” said Anacostia football player Jordan McHaney. “We didn’t expect that.”
He and his teammates didn’t expect any of what happened when they showed up for a Monday afternoon meeting. They’d been told they didn’t have practice until Wednesday, so figured a workout was coming. But instead of the gym or the field, football Coach and Athletic Director Cato June told his kids they were headed downstairs, to a locker room they knew to be closed. As they neared the entrance, they noticed a brightly painted blue and red A on the wall in front of them.
“I was like, ‘that wasn’t there before,’ ” McHaney said. “I saw the rest and just started to yell.”
He and his teammates found a totally transformed locker room. No longer dingy and white with a floor football player Mike Williams described as “always sticky,” it now had freshly painted white walls with Anacostia logos on any spaces big enough to fit them, and a new, smooth blue floor.
They saw new wooden benches with inspirational messages like “the only place success comes before work is in the dictionary” painted on them in red. They saw a bright new TV screen with the Anacostia logo glimmering on a blue background, a pristine white board, and black leather couches in the corner. Even the pipes running along the ceiling were painted red and blue.
“It’s magnificent,” Williams said. “I love it.”
Former Indianapolis Colt and Anacostia alumnus June said the restoration is “such a great thing” for his team, which finished 2-9 last season.
“Even now as a former player, I look back fondly on the time spent and the relationships that develop in the locker room,” he said. “So if you have a place you feel you can relax and have a good time, it makes for a good atmosphere.”
The atmosphere lightened once Harper got to mingling with the players. Chatter began, the stupor broken by selfies, questions, and “thank yous.” When the whole group lined up to take a picture, one of the Anacostia players forgot to take his headphones off. Harper held out his hand to halt him.
“Leave those on man, you might get sponsored!” he joked.
Harper gave real advice, too. He spoke to the players about work ethic, about the importance of school, his workouts and having fun. The Anacostia players were grateful he made the trip.
“We took it all in. He could be doing much better things right now,” Williams said. “Way better things. So it’s cool he’d come to the inner city and give back to the community.”
Even in the tension of the initial silence, Harper could see the reaction on the players’ faces, and felt the impact when he spoke to them later.
“It’s unbelievable, especially when they appreciate it that much,” Harper said. “I could talk to these kids for hours. It’s something I enjoy a lot.”