Suspend your imagination by four weeks — and your body clock by five hours — and it felt like a football Friday night. The stadium lights were beaming, the pep band was thumping, the dance team was gyrating.
Instead, it was 12:30 a.m. Monday when the Freedom-Woodbridge football players marched from the school to the field to conduct their first practice of the season amid game night trappings.
The “midnight madness” concept, most associated with the start of college basketball season, has been used occasionally by Washington area football coaches to manufacture excitement in their programs. Sometimes it’s not a matter of getting up earlier than the other guy, it’s a matter of not going to bed at all.
No one could begrudge Freedom trying to kick darkness until it bleeds daylight, to borrow a U2 song lyric. Heaven knows the Eagles could use a blast of sunshine: a 9-51 record since going varsity in 2005. Outscored 1,892-675. Three head coaches.
If midnight madness can help exorcise six years of Friday night sadness, then the Eagles would willingly practice at the witching hour every night if they could.
“We just want to let everyone know by us being out here at midnight we’re really serious about winning this season,” senior running back-defensive Donte Latimore said with an earnestness heard often in the Eagles’ camp.
Gently reminded about how Freedom, which opens Aug. 26 at home against Mountain View, had gone 1-9 last year after starting the season with a midnight practice, Latimore was unfazed.
“We’re not going to stop until we win, sir,” he said.
“Just think,” said senior defensive lineman Gary Wortham Jr., the head coach’s son, “everybody else won’t start until later today. We got a step ahead. That’s what we need to be able to build and start a good season. We have to create success around here, because it hasn’t been here yet.”
That in itself is a bit of a surprise. When Prince William County schools Freedom and Battlefield opened in 2004, the consensus was that Freedom would be the superior athletic school. It hasn’t worked out that way, despite the Eagles’ football team going 7-2 as a junior varsity squad its first year.
Battlefield won the Virginia AAA Division 6 football title last season and qualified several teams for state tournaments last spring. Freedom has struggled to field competitive teams, and in some sports, struggled to field teams at all.
Freedom-Woodbridge is not even the most successful Freedom High School in the Washington area. Freedom-South Riding is. The hyped start to practice could provide a spark.
“The story with midnight madness is when I took the job, I got kids looking at me like, what is this guy going to do different from what’s already been done?” said second-year coach Gary Wortham Sr., a former assistant at T.C. Williams, Woodbridge, Lee, Falls Church and Gar-Field.
Freedom treats the midnight practice as a pep rally of sorts. There were about 150 spectators, including curious players from other Prince William schools, on hand when the Eagles took the field. There were a handful left in the bleachers when Wortham delivered his post-practice speech at midfield at 2:24 a.m.
In their color scheme, the Eagles are emphasizing the gold and phasing out the black, maybe a symbolic attempt to put the dark days behind them with the hopes of brighter days ahead.
“Good night tonight,” Wortham Sr. told the Eagles. “Very good night tonight. We like a lot of things we’re seeing as coaches, and we’re evaluating. The biggest key right now is we’ve got to get in shape. We think athletically we can compete with anybody.”
With that, the players headed back to the school for a catered Mexican meal at 3 a.m. They had been instructed to bring sleeping bags, blankets and pillows for their mandatory sleepover in the gymnasium. (Nothing says proper rest like 50 gym-bound boys loaded up on fajitas, beans and salsa in the middle of the night).
Wakeup time was to be 5:45 a.m. Even their second practice was going to be earlier than most teams’ first.
Varsity Letter is a column about high school sports in the Washington area.