Mark Nicolas never had a true city championship to look forward to as a football player at Alonzo and Tracy Mourning High in Miami. So when his family packed up and moved to the District last year, enrolling Nicholas at McKinley Tech in Northeast for his junior season, he immediately joined the Trainers football team and gravitated toward the team’s infatuation with the Turkey Bowl.
“The real cool thing was it being called the Turkey Bowl, and playing on Thanksgiving,” Nicolas said. “A lot of my family come up here for Thanksgiving, so that would be a great opportunity for them to all see me play football.”
McKinley hasn’t made an appearance in the Turkey Bowl since 1970, and despite a promising uptick in turnout and talent this summer, the Trainers won’t get the chance to return to the iconic DCIAA title game — at least not this fall.
D.C. Public Schools announced in April that it was revamping the structure of DCIAA football. In an effort to establish competitive balance and give under-developed teams a chance at long-term success, DCPS split the league into a higher division, called Stars (Anacostia, Ballou, Coolidge, Dunbar, H.D. Woodson and Wilson) and a lower Stripes division (Bell, Cardozo, Eastern, Phelps, McKinley and Theodore Roosevelt).
The teams in Stars will continue to compete for a place in the annual Turkey Bowl, while the Stripes will hold its own four-team playoff in November that culminates in a second city championship game. Both winners of those respective titles will receive automatic berths into the DCSAA playoffs, with the Turkey Bowl winner advancing directly to the championship in December.
“I came out of the Interhigh, I played here at Wilson out of the Interhigh, I came out of the 80s,” said Mark Martin, who now coaches at his alma mater. “It’s really going to make it competitive. There’s not going to be a lot of blowouts. If Roosevelt doesn’t have enough players, if they don’t have 50 players like other teams, it’s going to make competition better. They’re going to have a chance. It gives teams a chance to build their programs.”
While many coaches and administrators continue to welcome the change as football season nears, others have questioned how the structure was formed, and what the future holds. Second-year McKinley Coach Al Kallay, a former Gonzaga and New Mexico assistant, believes his team was caught in a limbo between the two leagues (prior to last year, the Trainers had 14 wins in three seasons) — and moreover that coaches and athletic directors in the Stripes division weren’t given an opportunity to weigh in on the decision. The Trainers went 2-8 in 2012 with a young roster, but with a new strength and conditioning program and their highest turnout in years, they eyed this fall as a potential breakout season. Last year Anacostia played in the Turkey Bowl one year after a 0-8 season.
“When I heard, I called them. I called downtown right away to tell them I was against it,” Kallay said. “These kids grow up in this area to play in the Turkey Bowl. When they go to high school, that’s their whole thing. When they talk to guys across town, that’s their whole thing is we are playing for the Turkey Bowl.”
Discussions to change the league format have been ongoing for years, according to DCPS athletic director Stephanie Evans. The DCIAA has long been plagued by uneven participation numbers. In 2012 alone, Bell and Theodore Roosevelt both forfeited multiple games because of a lack of players, while Cardozo, Eastern and Phelps didn’t even field teams. It wasn’t pretty on the field, either. Stripes Division teams were 0-14 against the Stars, with the scoring margin running 483-124 in those contests. The most glaring statistic? A Stripes team hasn’t played in the Turkey Bowl since 1999.
While the title game was once again marred by eligibility issues last year (both Wilson and Dunbar were disqualified), Evans quickly mobilized a 12-member committee last winter to vote on a new structure and improve morale. She chose members from strong and weak athletic programs, with varied levels of experience. The board consisted of three football coaches (Dunbar’s Jerron Joe, Coolidge’s Natalie Randolph and Anacostia’s Cato June), four basketball coaches (Ballou’s Andrew Gaston, H.D. Woodson’s Henry Anglin, Coolidge’s Vaughn Jones and Theodore Roosevelt’s Rob Nickens), three athletic directors (Wilson’s Mitch Gore, Dunbar’s Johnnie Walker and Cardozo’s James Leatherman) and two DCPS athletic directors (Evans and Willie Bennett).
Together, the board voted to overhaul the old East-West division format and form two new divisions in football. They added a stipulation that teams that win the Stripes division championship will be able to apply for membership in the Stars division at the end of the season. If approved, the last-place team in the Stars would move to the Stripes.
The new format is guaranteed to be in place for three years, after which the board will review the league’s effectiveness over that period.
“We wanted a variety. We didn’t just want to take everyone that has been around for a while,” Evans said last week. “For example, Mr. Leatherman has been an athletic director in Kansas for 25 years. So we thought it was important to have an outside perspective from a different area.”
But with just two representatives from Stripes schools on that board, teams in the lower division are now turning inward to try and prove their worth. McKinley is treating the opener against Dunbar as its own Turkey Bowl, Nicolas said. Phelps is trying to make a splash in its first year of football since the late 90s, with former McKinley coach Sonny Price taking over and hoping to win the Stripes title and earn an application to the upper division. And at Eastern, the team has its best turnout in years with about 35 players, Coach Jason Strickland said.
The Ramblers haven’t fielded a varsity team in five years, he said, and when Strickland arrived at the school three years ago from North Carolina he had to build a decayed football foundation with just freshmen and sophomores.
The selection process of the DCPS didn’t bother him, he said, but initially he thought carrying the Stripes label would hurt the team because it would detract middle school athletes away from enrolling at Eastern. When coupled with the new transfer rules limiting movement of student athletes in the District, that is a legitimate concern, he said.
“We’re going to be there one day,” Strickland said of the Turkey Bowl. “Hopefully we’ll do what we’re supposed to do this year, and we’ll play for the Stripes championship on Eastern’s field, which is just a glorified home game for us.”