The Spingarn High School football team has a special play designed for sophomore running back Jawahn Preston. With the entire offensive line going in one direction, two of those big players break off as lead blockers. When they do, Preston is told to grasp a fistful of one of those lineman’s jerseys and once he sees an opening, to let go and run.
But the play has yet to make its debut in a game this season, and the reason has to do with the size of the player for whom it was created. Preston, for all his heart and desire to be one of the best running backs the District has ever seen, is quite possibly the smallest varsity football player in the Washington region.
He’s 4 feet 11 and 93 pounds.
Last year, he was also on the varsity team and was an inch shorter.
At many area schools, Preston, 14, wouldn’t even be on the varsity team lining up against 17-year-old, 200-plus pound players. But some D.C. public school football teams, including Spingarn, located off Benning Road in Northeast, struggle to fill a varsity roster, let alone a junior varsity. Issues of money, equipment and eligibility further complicate the matter.
Of the 35 players on Spingarn’s roster, seven are listed as 5-6 or smaller — and three of those players are sophomores.
“I would love to have a junior varsity team because I’ve got junior varsity kids playing varsity football,” Spingarn Coach Charlie McKie said. “It helps the varsity in one aspect but it doesn’t help the kids in some aspects. They get some varsity time but they’d do a little better if they were playing JV.”
Of the 11 high schools in the D.C. Interscholastic Athletic Association that play varsity football, only five have junior varsity teams. According to DCPS figures, Spingarn’s enrollment of 551 students is the smallest in the DCIAA. The next smallest enrollments — Cardozo and Theodore Roosevelt — also don’t have junior varsity teams and both had to forfeit or cancel varsity games this season because of a lack of eligible players. Theodore Roosevelt last had a junior varsity team two years ago.
Of the students attending Spingarn, McKie sees the breakdown like this: 200 of those will be boys, only 100 will be academically eligible. Of those eligible, about half may be interested in football. By the end, McKie is down to 35 football players — and that’s with four players from nearby Phelps High School, which doesn’t have a football team.
Further contributing to the lack of junior varsity programs in the city’s public league are the number of kids who choose to play Pop Warner football instead of for their school and lower enrollments because of the increasing number of charter schools.
“This is not a problem that just arose this year,” said Bobby Richards, the longtime coach at Cardozo. “This has been going on for years. We haven’t had a JV team in four years. There doesn’t seem to be as many kids as there were years ago.”
Even if McKie wanted to also field a junior varsity team, he said he doesn’t have enough equipment with 60 helmets and only 48 jerseys — not enough to field two healthy rosters.
Before last season and this season, Preston’s father Robby, also Spingarn’s offensive coordinator, asked his son if he wanted to play Pop Warner football instead of varsity football. His parents even considered sending him to Dunbar or Friendship Collegiate, which has a junior varsity team, because of fears that their son may get hurt. Each time, Jawahn Preston refused. “To go to college, I’m going to have to play high school football because they don’t recruit from Pop Warner,” he said.
While having younger and smaller players helps fill a varsity roster, some development is lost. Preston, who only plays on offense, sees little playing time. And his teammates admit they don’t hit him as hard as they could in practice for fear of hurting him.
“I think we take it easy on him because that’s our man, our teammate,” said senior Dominique Jones, who is nearly a foot and a half taller and 100 pounds heavier than Preston. “But I don’t think we should do that because in the game, they ain’t going to take it easy on him.”
Preston’s smaller teammates have learned how to manage against larger opponents. Terell Garner, a small but sturdy 5-4, 140-pound junior, was scared the first time he got hit as a freshman on Spingarn’s varsity team.
“Then they went hard on me and I kept on getting hit,” he said. “I was forced to get hit and forced to learn and toughen up.”
By his baby face alone, Preston could easily pass off as a middle schooler. He’s tough to spot on the field among the mass of bodies.
Preston is occasionally teased by classmates about his size and only once did it get to him, when he was held out of a game two weeks ago for getting into a fight with a student in the hallway who said Preston had gotten knocked down hard in practice.
But Preston says he would have it no other way. He loves playing against bigger players. (“They can’t really see me,” he said.) He would hate to be on junior varsity. “I want to be the best running back to be known from D.C. to go to Virginia Tech and go to the NFL and break records,” Preston said.
Until his much-hoped-for growth spurt comes, Preston does 200 pushups, situps and runs six laps on a nearby hill every other weekend. He eats a high-protein diet of tuna, egg whites, steak and peanut butter. When his stepmother goes grocery shopping, “there’s the house list and there’s Jawahn’s list,” said Robby Preston, who stands 5-7.
Last season, Preston had five carries. So far this season, he has only one carry for the Green Wave (3-2), in the third quarter of a season opening 56-0 loss to Baltimore’s Edmonton-Westside. Preston said the carry went for “about three yards.” His coaches insist it was closer to a one-yard loss.
Spingarn coaches are careful to play Preston, using his time on varsity as a training of sorts. But any time a teammate fumbles, Preston is at his father’s side begging to get in the game, calling for the “Jawahn” play. Spingarn coaches won’t run it until the team has a large lead, the starting offensive line can be used and there aren’t mammoths on defense.
“His time will come and he’ll get his opportunity,” Robby Preston said. “It may not be this year, hopefully it’ll be next year and hopefully he can really show what he can do.”