Theodore Roosevelt Coach Chris Harden has more than a few stories about finding football players, but the best has to be the one about Leon Gray.
Gray came to the Northwest Washington high school as a basketball hopeful and took part in the team’s summer workouts before his freshman year in 2015. One afternoon Harden’s squad was practicing near the track where Gray was doing conditioning, and a loose football rolled over.
Gray picked it up and threw it back. The throw had some zip to it, and some people got to talking about the boy’s arm. Gray had played football with his friends and neighbors growing up and knew that he could toss it pretty far. But he had never played for a team, never thought about the game, or his arm, too seriously.
That summer afternoon was a good chance to test himself. So he walked to midfield, aimed for the goal posts and, without so much as a run-up or a grunt, calmly let it fly. His throw sailed through the uprights. Harden was watching.
“You should’ve seen his face,” Gray said.
Gray joined Roosevelt’s football team a few weeks after that throw, and he has been the starting quarterback ever since. In three years under center he has helped guide the Rough Riders through a swift ascension, winning two Gravy Bowls and a D.C. State Athletic Association (DCSAA) title and earning a promotion from the DCIAA’s Stripes Division to the more prestigious Stars Division.
Roosevelt keeps winning in part because Harden keeps filling the roster however he can, piecing together teams a fraction of the size of the best Maryland or Virginia public squads by rounding up freshman, converting other athletes, securing transfers and hunting down big-bodied talent in the school hallways. To players like Gray, Harden finds himself doing something once practically unheard of in the D.C. area: He makes a pitch for football.
“We don’t always have 100 kids coming out for the program,” Harden said. “You’re more likely to have 30, 40 kids. So we do what we can.”
Roosevelt does not have a large enrollment, so getting numbers for football has always been a challenge. It has never suspended a football season because of low participation like two Northern Virginia schools did this summer, but it came close in Harden’s first year at the helm. The program was returning just three players from a team that went 2-8. The first-year coach and his staff scrambled for athletes and ended up playing the season with about 25 players on the roster.
“First thing I did was walk around the school and just said to kids, ‘Hey, you want to play football? You’ve got nice size,’ ” Harden said. “Anyone that said ‘I don’t know’ or ‘maybe,’ I got them out here.”
The biggest fish Harden caught this way was Darrius Buchanan. The 6-foot-3, 223-pound senior was a power forward on the basketball team when Harden approached him before his junior season. Buchanan hadn’t played football since middle school, but the coach told him that there were opportunities for him in the sport. Harden could mold him into a football player. A college football player.
“I had to face reality that basketball wasn’t my way out,” Buchanan said. “So [Coach Harden] talked me into getting on the field, and it has been benefiting me ever since.”
Playing wide receiver and defensive end, Buchanan quickly emerged as one of the best players on the team and in the District. He finished the year with six sacks and eight total touchdowns, earning the U.S. Army impact player of the month award. Like Gray, Buchanan went from being a basketball player to receiving Division I interest for football.
“If they have athleticism or size, that’s all we need,” Harden said of players like Buchanan. “Because if you have the football body and size, we can teach you something.”
While football offered a route to college athletics, it was arguably a riskier option than basketball. In 2018, you can’t discuss the viability of football without bringing up the potential for concussions and lasting brain injuries. But Buchanan said he didn’t think too much about it and didn’t have to convince his parents, because they trusted Harden. Gray said the risk of injury was on his mind at first, but in three years he has only rolled an ankle.
“When we’re recruiting, we may get two or three kids in a year who say my parents won’t let me because they’re afraid I might get a concussion, or kids who don’t want to get hurt,” Harden said. “But that’s just two or three kids, maybe.”
To Harden, football offers a different kind of safety. He pointed to a new student orientation the school held this week, and how all the football players knew each other when they walked in. High school is often four years of trying to find things to be a part of and determining what should be a part of you. Football can help with that.
“Our pitch is: ‘Come be a part of something,’ Harden said. “What I tell them is we have fun. It’s structured. It’s like a brotherhood, a family. You never feel alone.”
The team has about 40 players this year, and when they break up into positional groups during a recent afternoon practice it’s hard to tell the units apart. Yes, there are some hulking figures that are clearly linemen, but not many. More than a standard football team, they look like a collection of athletes, thrown together because they went for the same pitch at some point in their lives.
On the sideline, Buchanan sits and catches his breath, happy with how his team is practicing so close to the start of the season. He is asked about how he thinks of himself now, a year after Harden approached him and a few days before his senior year of high school.
“As a football player,” he said.