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Eligible again, Ballou’s homeless running back thrives in first game

Jamal Speaks on Friday played his first game for Ballou's football team this season after being forced to sit out when his homeless status became an issue. (Doug Kapustin/For The Washington Post)
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Jamal Speaks removed his helmet on the Ballou sideline, the sweat still glistening off his forehead as he adjusted his posture. Greeted by an onslaught of bright lights and microphones thrust in his face, Speaks held a steady gaze as he looked into the cameras. 

There were still 4.7 seconds left in Ballou’s 29-26 victory over Theodore Roosevelt on Friday night — with many of his teammates still on the field — but Ballou’s senior running back was the center of attention. Reporters rapidly fired questions until the game clock hit 00:00 and Speaks ran over to shake hands with his opponents. 

The 18-year-old breathed a sigh of relief. Finally, after all the paperwork, emails, phone calls and questions about his eligibility from D.C. athletic bodies — all because he does not have a permanent residence — Speaks had played his first high school football game in nearly two years.

Did he think it would come with this much publicity? No. Did he care? Not really. 

“It just feels like a blessing to be in this uniform again,” Speaks said, a wide smile engulfing his face.

Homeless D.C. high school football player kept off field amid questions over eligibility

Speaks’s jubilance came two weeks after he originally was supposed to play against Anacostia but was told he couldn’t because of questions about eligibility raised by Ballou Principal Willie Jackson.

Speaks had already been deemed eligible by the D.C. State Athletic Association (DCSAA), which oversees all high school sporting events in the District. But according to Speaks, Jackson insisted he couldn’t play because the District of Columbia Interscholastic Athletic Association (DCIAA), the city’s public high school athletic league, had ruled him ineligible in August. 

After a public outcry, D.C. Public Schools, in line with DCIAA, stated Sept. 19 that it would reconsider his eligibility and that Speaks would be able to practice and play with the team until it was resolved. DCSAA Director Clark Ray said Thursday that D.C. Public Schools accepted DCSAA’s decision that Speaks would be eligible to participate Friday. 

Jackson has not spoken publicly on the matter.

Since reports of Speaks’s living situation and eligibility surfaced, he has been the subject of many news reports. Not a very vocal person, he doesn’t crave the limelight. He would rather not continue to retell his life story. He would rather focus on his play.

On Friday, his play got a chance to speak for him. Speaks scored Ballou’s first touchdown and made a pivotal catch in the final minute to set up the team’s go-ahead touchdown reception by University of Maryland commit Lavonte Gater. 

“I have been off the field so long,” Speaks said. “I guess I started to feel myself toward the end.” 

Mia Young, Speaks’s self-appointed godmother, was in the stands for Speaks’s first game since he was a freshman. Young is the mother of Gater, one of Speaks’s closest friends. Young, along with more than 10 members of her family, wore custom shirts to the game, all emblazoned with references to Gater and Speaks. The back of Young’s shirt, with accompanying photos of Gater and Speaks, read: “MA DUKES OF GATER (9) & MAL (21). GO LIVE!”

Young remembered when Gater brought Speaks over to stay the night for the first time in eighth grade. Speaks stayed for one night, then another and then another. Eventually, he was always around the house. Gater and Speaks would do everything together, and soon Speaks was referring to Young as his godmother. Speaks does not have an active relationship with his mother, though they do occasionally communicate. Speaks’s father is dead. 

“I know his struggles,” Gater said. “To see him go through all that, he’s my brother. Really, he’s my brother.” 

The two do nearly everything together. Gater’s siblings refer to Speaks as their brother, and they cheer for Speaks like he is their own.

“That’s the old Mal!” an onlooker shouted after Speaks had a breakout carry.

“Whew, we haven’t seen that Mal in a while,” another shouted. 

Speaks again was back with his teammates, showing flashes of his dynamic play. When Friday’s game ended, the lights over Theodore Roosevelt’s field completely and unexpectedly shut off to encourage Ballou to go home. Speaks made a beeline to the team bus.

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