In the parking lot behind James Madison Middle School, a 4-foot-nothing future tailback bobbed eagerly in the heavy heat of a late summer afternoon, waiting for his mother to finish stretching a browned and battered practice jersey. When she finished, he scurried to join his Patuxent Rhinos teammates, all of them fumbling proudly with those shoulder pads that dwarf them now but will someday define their stature in the budding football factory of greater Upper Marlboro.
Over the past four years, the two high schools in this corner of Prince George's County, Wise and Douglass, have risen simultaneously to elite status, sending a combined five teams to Maryland state title games. Douglass reached the 2A final in 2011 and 2012, and Wise fell in the 4A final in 2009 and 2010 before winning its first 4A state crown last November.
Douglass and Wise will play each other for the first time Saturday at Prince George’s Sports & Learning Complex in a game that will showcase the best talent in a region they’ve lifted to rarefied heights on the Maryland football landscape.
“Upper Marlboro is a whole different world,” said Potomac (Md.) Coach Ronnie Crump, who has lived in the area for decades and faces off with Douglass annually. “They’re two premiere programs not only in the county but also the state.”
Part of the explanation for that unlikely dominance can be found on fields like the one behind James Madison Middle School, where parents watch excited 10-year-olds practice from lawn chairs two deep on the sideline and coaches teach the quick players to be quicker, the big ones to play even bigger and everyone to play harder.
“I would have to say the youth programs have a lot to do with [the success of football in Upper Marlboro],” said Earl Hawkins, the director of Prince George’s County athletics. “[Those teams] are pretty strong and have been for years, and that helps a lot.”
Though there are several youth football programs in the area, the Patuxent Rhinos and Upper Marlboro Mustangs garner recognition as the most prominent in Prince George’s County and often attract players from outside Upper Marlboro.
But Upper Marlboro, which produced NFL players Shawne Merriman (who played at Douglass), Josh Wilson and Josh Cribbs, is known for an overflowing pool of raw talent, an advantage that didn’t consistently translate to state-level success until those teams emerged to hone it.
Rick Taylor founded the Rhinos in 2005, and the program has grown to include teams at six different age levels. In 2010, it spawned the Greater Metropolitan Youth Football League, which includes teams from Central and Southern Maryland, Washington and Northern Virginia.
In 2010, the Rhinos and that league opted for age-based competition rather than the typical weight-classed football approach used in most youth leagues throughout the state. The Mustangs have adopted the same approach.
The effect, Taylor said, is that bigger players remain with players of their age and skill level — rather than “playing up” on teams on which they fit in size-wise but may be out of place in terms of maturity or knowledge of the game. Instead of being forced to play out of position or not at all on higher level teams, bigger players playing by age level learn to develop skills at positions that are traditionally less emphasized in youth football: offensive and defensive line.
As youth football programs grew to polish the region’s talent, Wise emerged as a place to funnel it. The state built Wise in 2006 to mollify overcrowding at several high schools in the region, most notably Douglass. It’s now among the biggest schools in the state with an enrollment last year of nearly 2,300 students, according to county figures.
The schools’ first classes were built from overflow from several area schools — Douglass, Gwynn Park, Largo, Surrattsville and Suitland among others — centering what had previously been a diaspora of Upper Marlboro talent. That conglomeration made for an interesting first few days of football practice that fall for Coach DaLawn Parrish.
Anthony Wright emerged as a star running back for those early Wise teams and remembers the Pumas’ meteoric ascent from a team of ultra-talented, competitively wary former opponents to one highly talented, well-coached and disciplined team.
“A lot of us were coming from different areas,” Wright said. “At first I remember practicing at Douglass, everyone was just trying to see each other’s skills and assets and stuff like that.”
The Pumas went 2-8 that first season, improved to 5-5 in 2007 and then went 9-4 in 2008. By 2009, they were in the state title game.
Wise’s massive enrollment and new facilities played a role in the team’s near-immediate success. But Douglass, founded in 1934 and with an enrollment of approximately 1,200, proves big and new are not essential for the success of the region.
A seemingly more important factor is coaching staff stability. Parrish, the 2012 All-Met Coach of the Year, is the only coach in Wise history. His counterpart at Douglass, J.C. Pinkney, is in his 12th year as coach of the Eagles.
They’ve never gone against each other as head coaches. While the encounter will be a new one for Pinkney and Parrish, their players will find the experience much more familiar.
After all, not long ago many of them were struggling to stand under the weight of their pads on quiet middle school fields, preparing for the time they would be together in louder, brighter, high school stadiums.
“We’ve known each other since middle school, elementary school. We’re basically neighbors,” Penn State-bound Wise defensive back Marcus Allen said. “We’re going to have a good game. We all play well with each other, and we’re cool, but once we get on the field, there’s no friends.”