Marquese Meadow sat in the packed gym bleachers of Friendship Collegiate in his school uniform, an impressionable 10th grader who had never seen anything quite like this. People jostled for seats. An ESPN television crew positioned itself along the wall. A celebratory feast waited on trays behind the stage, where more than a dozen senior football recruits sat, waiting to formally announce their college decisions.
It was Feb. 1, 2012, National Signing Day, when prized high school football recruits decide which colleges they will attend. Meadow had been a student at the public charter school for less than a month after transferring from Ballou, and Friendship marked his third high school in 15 months. Now he had a front-row seat to watch the country’s best defensive tackle, Eddie Goldman, announce he would be playing at Florida State, doing the Seminoles’ tomahawk chop on national TV as the gym erupted in cheers.
“It opened my eyes,” said Meadow, now a senior defensive tackle at Friendship.
In recent years, Friendship’s powerhouse football team has opened a lot of eyes, in the District and beyond. The Knights will take the field in the D.C. State Athletic Association championship game Friday night for the second consecutive season, and will do so with 10 of 24 seniors committed to or mulling college scholarship offers.
Equally noteworthy, nearly half of the Northeast school’s roster is made up of players who have transferred from other schools; four of them are the subject of a four-month-old D.C. schools investigation into whether they meet District residency requirements.
How the Friendship football team is assembling its roster has come under fierce criticism by many area coaches, who question whether the school’s coaching staff is bending the rules by actively recruiting players. Among them is Rick Houchens, coach at Archbishop Carroll, which lost three transfers in a six-month span to Friendship. Houchens is convinced one of them was invited to Goldman’s signing ceremony as a recruiting ploy.
“Why do you have to take other people’s players? You can’t develop your own players that you have?” Houchens said.
As Friendship prepares for Friday’s game against H.D. Woodson, it is dogged by an uncomfortable question, one that has grown since Aug. 1, when the D.C. school system introduced a new policy that requires transfers to sit out from sports for a year after changing schools: How will Friendship football survive without transfers, without kids like Marquese Meadow?
“Friendship as you know it will be dismantled, pretty much,” said Johnnie Sharpe, coach at Theodore Roosevelt and a close friend of the Friendship coach, Aazaar Abdul-Rahim, a man some consider the most powerful coach in the D.C. high school football scene.
On a cold Tuesday morning in mid-October, Abdul-Rahim, 37, wore sweats, a hoodie and small bags under both eyes. He’s aware he has a line of detractors but never stops moving long enough to let it bother him.
“I feel like the work that is being done with our kids supersedes how people view me at the end of the day,” he said. “I just want to help. And I believe that our track record says we’re making a difference. So I would take that over being, you know, Robin Hood, or being that guy that everyone praises.”
He paced Friendship Collegiate’s hallways with a smart phone in hand, pausing just long enough to catch his breath. That phone will likely ring about 10 times this week alone, he said, with parents inquiring about their sons playing at the 1,200-student school.
Friendship has one of the more unconventional football programs in the Washington area — if not the country. Its guiding principle, as envisioned by Abdul-Rahim, is to win college scholarships for its players. To do that, the Knights play the majority of their games against out-of-state powerhouses. This season, Friendship played in Florida, New Jersey and Delaware, in addition to three contests in Maryland. The Knights will compete for the city title despite playing just one regular season game in the District, where many rival coaches are reluctant to schedule games against them.
“I’ve never asked for a championship. I don’t even care about winning,” Abdul-Rahim said. “The only reason we’re playing a national schedule is because it gives our kids exposure, and because we can’t play anyone else.”
More than 70 football players from Friendship have earned scholarships since he started at the school 10 years ago, including a school-record 20 earlier this year.
Abdul-Rahim grew up in Lincoln Heights, just four blocks from what is now the Friendship campus. He played defensive back at Dunbar High School and San Diego State. He earned his masters in counseling before returning to the District, where he became a school counselor and accepted the job as Friendship’s junior varsity coach shortly after the school opened in 2000.
“I never had aspirations to become a national program,” Abdul-Rahim said. “Just wanted to keep as many kids out the neighborhoods and doing the right things, and show these kids they can go to college at the end of the day.”
College coaches say they can’t afford to ignore the talent Friendship produces.
“Those kids come here, they understand hard work, they understand hard coaching, they understand that academics are important,” said Maryland Coach Randy Edsall, who has four ex-Friendship players on his roster. “That’s a place where we’ll always continue to recruit.”
But not all Friendship players who earn a scholarship go the distance in college. Friendship has produced 48 college-bound players the past three years, inviting plenty of national attention. Only 25 of them were still playing this fall, according to a review of college rosters.
Still, the prospect of a college scholarship is a central tenet at Friendship, where all students are required to gain acceptance to at least two colleges in order to graduate. For the school’s top football players, an athletic scholarship is the principal goal.
Many players seek out Friendship, Abdul-Rahim says, because they dream of playing college ball. Sophomore Quarvez Boulware said his decision to leave McKinley Tech in Northeast following his freshman season in 2012 was simple. “I thought if I transferred to Friendship, I would have a better chance at going to college than McKinley,” he said.
The 6-foot-2, 270-pound junior has played two seasons with Friendship and is now rated as one of the top offensive linemen in the country. He is weighing scholarship offers from Maryland, Florida State and North Carolina.
Abdul-Rahim knows his success has created expectations. Many parents who enroll players under his tutelage expect a guaranteed scholarship.
“It’s the gift and the curse,” he said. “That’s on everybody’s mind, that’s on every kid’s mind. And it should be at the end of the day.”
Of the 49 players on Friendship’s roster to begin the 2013 season, 23 started high school elsewhere, according to the team’s accounting. Friendship has long been accused of recruiting players away from other schools in the area, which is prohibited.
Last spring, the District placed Friendship assistant coach Khenny Wonson on one-year probation after finding that he had influenced a student to transfer. The investigation was framed around two tweets that Wonson had sent, one in which he labeled himself an “aggressive recruiter.”
“When you’re asleep Im recruiting,” he tweeted, “wen Im asleep Im dreaming my nxt recruit.”
Wonson is a part of the team’s “community services,” Abdul-Rahim said, and continues in his role as its academic adviser.
Abdul-Rahim has said he does not recruit, but he also sees no reason to turn away kids who want to play for him. When three players from Carroll transferred to Friendship in 2012, including eventual Maryland recruits Yannick Ngakoue and Jermaine Carter, Abdul-Rahim did not block the moves.
Houchens, the Carroll coach, was highly critical. “A kid isn’t thinking about transferring on his own,” he said. “Somebody has to plant the idea in his head.”
He added: “They had offers, scholarship offers when they were with me. But they thought they should’ve been bigger and further ahead, which isn’t the case. It’s sad.”
Ngakoue said transferring to Friendship was akin to a “business decision.” He moved out of his mother’s home in the Maryland suburbs and spent his weekdays at his father’s D.C. home, he said. He eventually became the Terps’ top recruit and said he can’t imagine where he’d be without Friendship.
“Coach Rahim, especially, was a father figure to me,” Ngakoue said. “He didn’t just care about football. He actually spent time with me, talking about stuff at home, how was I doing, make sure everything was good, money in my pocket if I was broke. He’d make sure the night before a game if I didn’t have nowhere to stay at night or something, he made sure I could go to a teammate’s house. . . . He’s actually like that with everybody.”
Friendship players interviewed for this story said Abdul-Rahim did not recruit them. Meadow is now a senior who hopes to play college football next fall. “Friendship is a school of choice. It’s not a neighborhood school,” he said. “Friendship doesn’t choose you. You choose to go to Friendship.”
The in-fighting among the city’s football coaches took a turn in July, when Friendship filed a complaint against Ballou, claiming that the coaching staff at the school in Southeast allowed a Friendship player to partake in its spring practices. The charge resulted in a one-year probation for Jason Lane, Ballou’s head coach.
“I’m not scared to say that several programs have mimicked little things about them,” Lane said of Friendship’s influence.
Scrutiny has intensified around the Friendship team in the past year, and officials have spent the past four months investigating the residency status of four students in particular, all of whom played at schools outside the District last year. Friendship submitted “insufficient sworn statements by other primary caregivers” for three of the athletes, according to a document obtained by the Washington Post.
Friendship’s current roster includes two players with Maryland addresses. Abdul-Rahim says that he has two non-District residents paying tuition on his team this year.
Abdul-Rahim said Friendship’s success isn’t dependent on transfers, but he knows his team will be impacted by the new rule. Even if families are comfortable paying to attend the public charter school, players would have to miss a full season of football before becoming eligible. “So that’s probably not going to happen anymore,” Abdul-Rahim said.
The concerns about Friendship’s roster have distanced Abdul-Rahim from many of his coaching peers in the area, and filling out a schedule has become an arduous task, as the Friendship coach has to seek out opponents from elsewhere.
Abdul-Rahim showed a rare moment of frustration in a September e-mail, after inquiring with Clark Ray, the District of Columbia Statewide director of athletics, about possibly playing a team in Cleveland.
Ray said the game wasn’t a suitable option, and Abdul-Rahim e-mailed back: “I quit.”
Four minutes later, a reply popped in his inbox.
“You can’t,” Ray wrote. “Not yet.”