On one side of the stadium, the Damascus students proudly wore Maryland red, and waved their American flags while belting out “The Star-Spangled Banner.” On the other, the road fans wore black shirts, while the Watkins Mill football players took a knee in front of them in protest of police brutality and racial inequality.

The contrasts between the two communities were brought to light after the captains from the Montgomery Village school took their stand with San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick by kneeling during the national anthem before their game last week.

On Friday night, in the predominantly white but increasingly diverse rural town on the northernmost edge of Montgomery County, on the home field of the Maryland 3A state champion Swarmin’ Hornets, the Wolverines’ football team did so again. On the opposite side of the field, the home fans sang louder than usual and chanted “U-S-A” once the song was complete.

The bands performed, the cheerleaders cheered and a high school football game preceded by an atypical pregame handshake ensued mostly without a hitch. Damascus rolled to its 17th straight victory, 52-14. But in a stadium reserved for athletics, without a word, an uncomfortable conversation continued.

“I think it’s a great place to have the discussion,” Watkins Mill senior Brian McNeary said at Thursday’s practice. “Because football is America’s sport. If football players do it, it’s the best way to draw attention.”


Watkins Mill players shake hands with Damascus players before their Friday night football matchup in Damascus. (Toni L. Sandys/The Washington Post)

The idea to kneel originated with McNeary and the Watkins Mill co-captains. McNeary said he has been following news reports of police killings over the past year and recently studied the lyrics of the national anthem — written by a slave owner — and learned it contained a reference to slavery in the since-removed third stanza.

Watkins Mill’s captains didn’t think their decision would get this much attention. They didn’t anticipate the support from their teammates and classmates, or that a few girls’ soccer players would take a knee earlier this week. They didn’t expect to make national news and have television stations at a Thursday afternoon practice.

Watkins Mill players and the team’s coaches — who didn’t kneel — have been criticized and threatened by students, parents and Montgomery County Public Schools faculty members, in addition to anonymous online commenters.

A Montgomery County teacher commented on Facebook that their decision to kneel “says everything about their lack of character and the values of the Watkins Mill community” and a former Watkins Mill employee wrote, “and that’s exactly why I no longer work there!!!”

Teachers from Watkins Mill have led class discussions on the significance of taking a knee as it relates to racial inequality and First Amendment rights. The diverse school — Hispanic/Latino and African American students make up three-fourths of the student population — held town hall meetings Thursday and Friday to discuss the importance of being open-minded and listening to other people’s perspectives. They talked about what they could do next as a community, and began planning community fundraisers.

“We’re not doing it because we want to feel recognized. That’s not the reason why we’re doing it,” Watkins Mill junior Josh Amoateng said. “We’re doing it to make a cause in our community. Now people have just heard about it. Now we’re just out there. But we need to take the message and go further.”


The Damascus student section sings as the band performs The Star-Spangled Banner before the Swarmin’ Hornets game against Watkins Mill. (Toni L. Sandys/The Washington Post)

Watkins Mill quarterback Markel Grant (8) wears a "Black Lives Matter" T-shirt under his jersey and pads as he warms up before the game. (Toni L. Sandys/The Washington Post)

At Damascus, Principal Jennifer Webster sent an open letter with a similar message, calling for community members to try to better understand experiences of other students. Webster said she has met with leaders from various student groups, including the football team and that the responses have been mixed.

“What I see is, the experiences that our students have had are very different than Watkins Mill on the whole,” Webster said. “That’s not true of every individual student.”

Damascus Athletic Director Joe Doody said that the approach to this week for the athletic department and the fifth-ranked Swarmin’ Hornets football team was “business as usual.”

“We talked about it,” said Damascus senior running back Elijah Atkins, who led the Swarmin’ Hornets (3-0) with 144 rushing yards and three touchdowns. “We just had to block out the adversity and stick to our own Damascus football.”

That’s exactly what Damascus did Friday, jumping out to a 52-6 halftime lead. Watkins Mill was overmatched, losing several players to injury including senior Ginino Mattocks, who was carted off by an ambulance after a helmet-to-helmet hit.

But just as they did one week prior, the Wolverines (1-2) stuck to their convictions.

“We teach them every day, think on your own, problem-solve, stand up,” Watkins Mill Coach Mike Brown said. “And here they’re doing it. And people are trying to beat them down. And that’s why I’m going to continue to support them.”