Previous Story

Tie a Yellow Bracelet

All Features

Next Story

Wilt vs. Elgin: When Their World Was the Playground

No Left Tackle Left Behind

The improbable rise of Friendship football in Washington, D.C.

On National Signing Day at Friendship Collegiate Academy, 19 seniors from the Washington, D.C., public charter school’s football team stood up before a crowd of parents, national television cameras, and even the mayor and announced which college scholarship they’d accepted.

The event program printed out for guests at the school assembly listed the names of only 18 honorees.

“One more offer came in in the morning [of the ceremony],” head coach Aazaar Abdul-Rahim, the architect of what is now the stoutest squad in Washington, D.C., tells me. “We’ll take it.”

The free rides are so plentiful at Friendship these days, the kids sometimes act as if they don’t really get what they’re getting.

Take Selton Hodge, a senior linebacker for Friendship, and one of the lucky 19 from this year’s class. On the afternoon of February 16, or more than two weeks after National Signing Day, Hodge walked into the football office as a gang of assistant coaches waited for an offseason conditioning session to start.

“Anybody seen my letter?” Hodge asked.

He admitted to everybody in the room that he’d lost the letter of intent from the University of Richmond. The college’s athletics staff had just told him that the paperwork better be signed, sealed, and delivered right away, or else.

So Hodge enlisted his former coaches in an all-hands search of the office, where he thought he last saw it.

After a few minutes, the letter was indeed located inside a FedEx envelope amid a pile of papers. Hodge left the room relieved.

Abdul-Rahim showed up just as the big hunt concluded. But even with its happy ending, he phoned the former player’s parents right away. “Richmond called. They need the scholarship, the actual scholarship,” Abdul-Rahim told them. “Just make sure your son mails it off today.”

The situation left Abdul-Rahim a little peeved.

“It’s never over here, you know?” he said after ending the phone call.

Tuition and fees for an undergrad at Richmond run $43,970. Throw in a shared dorm ($4,170) and a meal plan ($5,820), and you’re talking $53,960 a year. Stay and play for four years, even assuming no cost increases, and the package that Hodge put at risk is worth $215,840. That’s more than six times the median annual household income ($34,781, according to the Washington Post‘s demographic database) for Mahaning Heights, the downscale neighborhood in D.C.’s Ward 7 where the Friendship campus sits.

Abdul-Rahim’s been around long enough to know not every kid in pads and a helmet gets an NCAA ride. A Houston Chronicle study published last season held that just 1.4 percent of high school football players gets to play ball on scholarship at a Division I school.

But Abdul-Rahim also can take some pride in Hodge’s nonchalant handling of a piece of paper that’s the schoolboy football equivalent of a winning lottery ticket. Because of the coach’s hard work and player-promotion ingenuity, so many of Hodge’s peers have hit the same jackpot, he might not be aware of how badly he’s beaten the odds. In the three years Friendship has held National Signing Day celebrations, 42 players have been awarded college scholarships.

“The 19 scholarships from football [this year], that’s more than I’ve ever heard of,” says L.D. Ross, vice president of programs at D.C. College Access Program, a group established in 2000 that monitors how many of the city’s public high school students continue their education.

Big as the number is, Abdul-Rahim says he thinks he can set a new scholarship record next year. Don’t bet against him. Friendship was already stacked before a recent migration of football talent to the school unlike anything the schoolboy scene in this town has ever witnessed. If the big bodies keep transferring at their current rate, by fall his roster will have more blue chips than the poker room at the Bellagio.

Recruiters from the Ivy League and the SEC and big and small conferences throughout the land now make pilgrimages to Friendship, located in a former middle school shuttered by the D.C. government in the 1990s, on an ugly strip of Minnesota Avenue NE known more for violence and plight than for football. The King of Alabama himself, Nick Saban, stopped by the building to schmooze Coach Rahim, as he’s called by the players, and do some talent shopping. Eddie Goldman, the most heavily recruited defensive lineman in the country this year, was coveted most by Saban, and was responsible for ESPN’s broadcast of the National Signing Day ceremony. (Goldman declared for Florida State. Sorry, Mr. Saban!) “Next season I’m going to have four kids that Tennessee has already offered, and three kids that Florida State already offered,” he says.

Asked about the Tennessee offer binge, Abdul-Rahim says, “That shows how the system works.” Former Alabama linebackers coach Sal Sunseri got a good look at all of Rahim’s kids while recruiting Goldman for the last couple years. Last month, Sunseri was named defensive coordinator at Tennessee, and firmed up his relationship with the Friendship coach. “Four years ago I had kids who are just as good as these kids who didn’t get offered,” Abdul-Rahim says. “Now I got recruiters offering my kids scholarships just because they think they missed some of my kids in the past and don’t want to miss again.”

The emergence of Friendship as a gridiron power — the Knights went 9-1 last season despite losing their starting quarterback for the season early in the first game — is a fine story on its own. But throw in that Abdul-Rahim has turned this school on the east and much less prosperous side of the Anacostia River into a scholarship factory and you’ve got the most feel-good tale from what was an otherwise disastrous football season for public schools in the nation’s capital, a year marred not only by lousy football, but by fights and forfeitures and a level of systemic dysfunction that kids and parents around here, and probably only around here, quietly accept from their school system.

Abdul-Rahim is now the most important figure in local high school football. Yet he remains an outsider to the city’s scholastic sports establishment. Friendship opened its doors in 2000 as the only secondary school of the six schools run by the Friendship Public Charter School network, and, like all public charters, was founded as an alternative to government-run schools, and is therefore a natural enemy of anybody allied with the status quo, which in this case is the D.C. Public Schools (DCPS). But high school football is high school football. And Abdul-Rahim says he’s made several attempts over the years to get his charter school team accepted into the D.C. Interscholastic Athletic Association (DCIAA), the league run by DCPS that is made up of traditional public schools. But he’s been rejected every time by what the coach calls “the old-boy network.”

Friendship has also been kept out of the confederation for D.C. charter schools, the Washington Charter School Athletic Association (WCSAA), but for different reasons: WCSAA commissioner Don Cole told me last offseason that he and Abdul-Rahim agreed that Friendship is just too good.

So Friendship has no regular-season championship to play for, and travels more than some college squads each fall. Last season the team had two games in New York (including a showcase game against perennial New Jersey powerhouse Bergen Catholic, which needed a second-half comeback to deal Friendship its only loss) and a nationally televised showcase in Cincinnati. Friendship played only one game against a D.C. school.

Friendship’s rise has come without a whole lot of financial or material resources, either. In 2007, the city commenced a $40 million-plus renovation project that by now has left every DCIAA school with new turf fields, painted grandstands, press boxes, scoreboards, lights, and locker rooms.

Charter schools got nothing out of D.C.’s football-centric construction and revitalization boom.

So Friendship, which has about 1,300 kids, has no decent practice space or home football stadium.

The football team still doesn’t even have a locker room. Players dress for practices inside industrial storage bins, which have no ventilation or running water, that have been plopped down on an undertended green space near the campus called Fort Mahan Park; “Welcome to Friendship Beach!” is how Abdul-Rahim greeted me when I visited a practice there on a dusty summer day. Day-Glo orange plastic traffic barrels served as tackling dummies during the workouts. Weight-training sessions for the team are held in a long third-floor hallway, because the only weight room on campus could barely fit Eddie Goldman and a spotter, let alone their 100-plus teammates.

Only occasionally does Abdul-Rahim let on that he wished for anything more than he’s got. Like when he was told that he needs to find about $10,000 for 40 new football helmets. The ones he’s been using since starting the program are now, for legal and liability reasons, too old to go through another refurbishing. He thinks the city should pay for replacements. “They’d get a good return on that investment,” he says. “I mean, how many million dollars in scholarships have we gotten for kids? How many millions just this year?”

He knows how to take advantage of the economic disparities, too. Goldman says the “haves vs. have-nots” angle has found its way into a lot of Abdul-Rahim’s pregame speeches.

“We’d go to these places, be in their locker rooms, see what everybody else had,” Goldman says. “We got the dirt field and no locker rooms. And we’d say, ‘Wow, what if WE had this?’ We don’t have resources, and we play teams that have resources. You could say we played with a chip on our shoulders.”

Perhaps those pep talks deserve some credit for Friendship whupping Georgetown Prep, a Jesuit institution from nearby Bethesda, Maryland, where boarders pay $48,160 a year, which gets them use of the on-campus golf course, and Poly Prep Country Day School, a Brooklyn School founded in 1854 and built on the site of a former golf course, where even day boys pay $34,289 a year to attend.

Friendship’s one intra-city game came late in the season with a visit to three-time defending city champion H.D. Woodson, which at the time was leading the DCIAA East with an undefeated league record. Friendship’s 46-6 slaughter of Woodson was a massive blow to the DCIAA. Goldman says the talent flow toward Friendship has only picked up since the end of the year — “A lot of big dudes are coming here,” he says. So suddenly the football programs at Woodson, where NFL quarterback Byron Leftwich played his high school ball, and other traditional D.C. schools seem old and in the way.

“There’s so much momentum for us now,” Abdul-Rahim says.

Friendship Football
I‘ve been on the other side,” Abdul-Rahim says.

He means the losing side. Abdul-Rahim, 35, grew up in D.C. and played high school football at Dunbar, long one of the best public school programs around town. He went to Mesa Community College in Mesa, Arizona, before landing a scholarship to San Diego State as a defensive back.

Out on the West Coast, he had an epiphany about what wasn’t being done for guys like him back home.

“I truly felt that a lot of guys I grew up with in D.C. could have been playing Division I with me in California,” he says. “I saw that it was strictly because of a lack of opportunities and a lack of mentorship and a lack of a model for success.”

He earned a B.A. in social sciences and a master’s in counseling, and then quickly got into high school coaching in hopes of remedying what he knew was the underexploitation of his hometown’s football talent pool. His sheepskin got him a job as a guidance counselor at Friendship Collegiate. He also volunteered as an assistant football coach in the early years of the school, when there was only a junior varsity program. He was head coach when the varsity team debuted in 2004.

Administrators and the board of trustees, led by Friendship founder Donald Hense, were against even having varsity football. Hense recalls telling Abdul-Rahim that he doubted playing football would help anybody become a better student, and at least one board member pointed out to the coach that “Collegiate” was in the charter school’s name for a reason. But Friendship in its infancy was having trouble attracting boys, and the coach asserted that at the very least establishing a good football team could help bridge the gender gap. He also reminded the powers that be that football was what got him from Dunbar to San Diego State.

“If the Lord blessed you with some ability that can get you to college, get your college paid for, you’ve got to use that,” he recalls arguing. “If it’s football, that’s no different than art, or if you’re a drama major who’s got some amazing amount of charisma you can use to your advantage, you use it! We’re not talking about training kids for the NFL. We’re talking about a college degree.”

They bought it.

“I was opposed for all the stereotyped reasons, thinking that athletics and academics [are in] conflict,” says Hense. “Coach Rahim had experiences where football played a big role in getting him to college, and he convinced us to give it a try.”

The Friendship founder is particularly fond of the tale of Percee Goings-King, a member of the Friendship Class of 2011. Goings-King wrote an essay for the school’s latest National Signing Day program about how his “life changed forever” at last year’s event. That was when he announced he’d be playing for Columbia University. Neither of his parents had a college degree, Goings-King says, but they were the ones who wanted him to attend the charter school — for his education, not for football. He ended up with a 4.1 GPA at Friendship (signaling a straight-A student on an Advanced Placement course schedule) and an Ivy League ride.

“I wasn’t ever thinking about going to an Ivy League school, not until Friendship,” Goings-King tells me by phone from Columbia, where he’s completing his freshman year. “I guess I’m a pretty good advertisement.”

Hense agrees. “I think Percee’s story is the greatest story ever,” he says.

Abdul-Rahim says getting the Friendship administration to green-light the football program wasn’t as tough as convincing kids to give his expansion program a shot over either traditional public school squads or the area’s historically powerful Catholic teams. The low point of his coaching career so far came in a game against mighty Massillon of Ohio in 2004, his rookie year as head coach of Friendship’s brand-new varsity program. The mere scheduling of such a historically stout football school — the Tigers boast 22 state and nine national championships — is but one sign of Abdul-Rahim’s early ambition.

Ambition doesn’t show up in the box score, alas. At halftime, Massillon was up, 44-6. In D.C., as in many jurisdictions, there was a so-called “slaughter rule” in place that keeps the game clock running without timeouts for anything once a team takes a 35-point lead. At Massillon, a referee came over during the break to tell Abdul-Rahim that Ohio had no such esteem-protecting edict on the books, but offered to run the clock anyway.

“I told the ref, ‘No! Don’t run the clock! Let’s keep playing!’” Abdul-Rahim says. “I was young and arrogant. Then the second half started and Massillon scored, and they scored again, and again, and they still had their starters in. I look down the sideline and I had maybe 16, 17 players on my whole team. And I’m thinking, ‘Damn! They’re gonna try to score 100 points on us!’ So I say, ‘Uh, Ref, can you get that clock started now?’”

The final score: 72-6.

Abdul-Rahim noticed early on that coaches from all over the D.C. area called him each offseason “trying to schedule us for homecoming.”

Friendship’s football fortunes changed when the coach started spending less time on the high school games and more on getting players into college. “Football is now about 20 percent of the job,” Abdul-Rahim says.

The blue-chip guys with D-I talent, he realized early on, would be fine; in the Internet age, recruiters would come calling for Goldman, a 6-foot-4, 310-pound dude with sprinter speed for at least 15 yards, even if the coach did nothing in the way of marketing. He just had to keep those guys eligible.

So he got obsessive about making sure all his players earned GPAs and SAT scores that kept them in line for college scholarships. And he took the stereotypical coach’s job as surrogate father to his players seriously.

Mahaning Heights looks like a rough place. Abdul-Rahim and the crime blotter say the looks aren’t deceiving. A sign that hangs at the front entrance of Friendship tells students that what’s allowed in the streets and what’s tolerated in the hallways are two different matters:

IDs On

Shirts Tucked

Jackets Off

Throw Away All

Contraband

Even in the offseason, Abdul-Rahim’s players are given very limited options about how they’ll spend their afternoons. They’re going to be on campus, and are either attending SAT prep classes or study halls or lifting weights and otherwise working out with coaches in the hallway. The winter workouts run until the early evening every weekday. Unexcused absences earn punishment that Abdul-Rahim will only describe as “extreme.” He’s not apologetic about his hardline approach.

“I’d keep the kids here all night if I could,” he says. “When they’re not here, bad decisions are made. Babies get made.” Abdul-Rahim says the 2011 season was the first he can remember where none of his players fathered a child. (Extreme punishments extend beyond the football team at Friendship: A “discipline report” released last month by the D.C. Public Charter School Board, a sanctioning body for charters in the city, said Friendship expelled 102 of its 1,231 students, or about 8 percent of its enrollment, in the 2010-11 school year. Friendship administrators countered they expelled only 67 students that year, which is still an astronomical number.)

Players on the scholarship bubble, talent-wise, get a promise from Abdul-Rahim: If they give all they’ve got to Friendship football, he’ll do all he can to find somebody at the next level that’ll take ‘em. He says that parents are swayed at least as much by his ability to manufacture college scholarships for marginal players as they are by his team’s on-field successes, and word of all the free rides has helped deliver blue chips to his doorstep.

“My mom made me come to Friendship,” Goldman says.

Those 19 scholarships didn’t happen by accident or athletic ability alone. Friendship kids get more rides than other schools’ kids because the head coach, even from outside the system, uses the system better than everybody else. He spends his own money on subscriptions to online databases frequented by recruiters; hudl.com, a full-service recruiting website used by coaches at every level of football, is his fave. He made individual web pages for all his upperclassmen last season, complete with highlight clips he updated after each game. He puts links to those pages in e-mails regularly blasted to college coaches across the country.

Abdul-Rahim hasn’t abandoned analog tools to market his guys: He still makes laminated business cards for each player, with the personal web page address listed alongside height, weight, GPA, SAT score, and parental contact information. He carries a box of cards with him to football camps and seven-on-seven summer tournaments and all-star games and any other event where college coaches might gather.

“I saw that these are things that all the private schools, with the coaches who have money behind them, are using,” says Abdul-Rahim. “So that’s what we do here. I flood the market.”

Abdul-Rahim works smarter than the competition, too. He traces the skyrocketing of his team’s scholarship rate back to the moment he accepted that finances were often more important than 40-yard-dash times when a school decides who to give a scholarship to. So every dollar he could take off the football budget would “make my kids more attractive,” he says.

He knows as much about Pell Grants and every other type of financial aid available to low-income students as a guidance counselor at a Ward 7 high school should. (According to stats provided by the D.C. Public Charter School Board, 65.6 percent of Friendship’s student body qualifies as low-income.) He realized a tuition assistance program designed for D.C. students from any family-income bracket would be particularly beneficial to athletes: As partial repayment for America’s refusal to grant the District statehood, since 2000 college students from the nation’s capital have been eligible for a $10,000-a-year stipend at any public university in the country, to make up the difference between out-of-state and in-state tuition. The grant program wasn’t put in place to facilitate football scholarships. But Rahim now calls it his “secret weapon.”

“So many smaller schools that don’t have these huge football budgets are looking to cut corners,” he says. “I tell these colleges about the $10,000, and because so many of my kids come from low-income households and are fully qualified for [other financial aid programs], I can show them a whole package of aid that I’ve put together. Then I tell them they can get my kids at a discount compared to other kids.”

Oh, right: That 19th scholarship that came in too late to make the 2012 National Signing Day ceremony? It came from Glenville State, a West Virginia D-II school, and went to Friendship cornerback Alonzo Davis. Abdul-Rahim says the financial aid package he assembled, topped off by the $10,000 supplement, sealed the deal. “Alonzo Davis is good, but he didn’t even start for us,” says Abdul-Rahim. “You just have to work at this. Every coach in D.C. should be doing it.”

Coaches don’t call Friendship asking for a homecoming date anymore. If the football office phone rings these days, it’s more likely a player wanting to know how to become part of the program or a recruiter (or, well, a college administrator wondering what the heck ever happened to that letter of intent).

Out of nowhere, Friendship’s competing with the area’s top private schools for the same blue-chip athletes. And Abdul-Rahim’s winning his share. The biggest star to shun the Catholics for Friendship so far is Jalen Tabor, a sophomore defensive back.

Tabor says he was set to go to Our Lady of Good Counsel, a suburban school in nearby Montgomery County, Maryland, that now dominates the powerful Washington Catholic Athletic Association and has ranked among the top programs in the country the last few seasons. Good Counsel finished sixth in USA Today‘s final Super 25 rankings for 2011. Good Counsel’s also got one of the most well-funded football squads anywhere. Bernie Dancel, who owns and operates debt counseling and debt collections services in Maryland, has donated millions to local charities through the years, and he’s opened his wallet particularly wide to benefit Good Counsel football. (Dancel’s son, Zach Dancel, quarterbacked Good Counsel in 2009 and 2010; one sign of Dad’s gridiron philanthropy: Zach Dancel played home games in high school at a stadium named Dancel Field.) Dancel has in the past even become a legal guardian to an out-of-towner who happened to have All-American talent.

But Tabor gave up thoughts of playing on Good Counsel’s greener pastures, or at least Dancel Field, after meeting Abdul-Rahim.

“I had one conversation with Coach Rahim at a camp, and it was all over,” says Tabor. Though just a sophomore, Tabor has been flooded with verbal scholarship offers from national powerhouses since getting two interceptions in Friendship’s season-opening win in late August at Taft of Cincinnati, a game nationally televised by ESPN; Auburn and Alabama have already tendered theirs. Tabor, whose inner biceps are covered by huge tattoos reading “hard work” and “dedication,” is on every national scouting service’s roster of top recruits in the class of 2014.

And Jonathan Haden, one of the Catholic league’s most prized sophomores, just came over from Carroll. Haden’s brother Joe starred at Florida and was a first-round pick of the Cleveland Browns in 2010. A Washington Post story written two years ago, before Jonathan Haden had played his first high school game, said the kid already had “five scholarship offers from BCS conference colleges” when he was 14 years old. Another sign of how prized Haden’s talents are: Haden’s father, also named Joe, told the Post that Bernie Dancel once offered to take his son in as a boarder as an enticement to get him to play for Good Counsel. The Hadens declined the offer.

Friendship’s landing big fish from the public schools, too.

“I got Dunbar’s best player with me now,” Abdul-Rahim tells me. He points to Derwin Gray, the biggest of the few dozen real big kids working out in the hallway weight room.

Gray is a 6-foot-5, 290-pound lineman and, according to some scouting services, possibly the bluest chip in D.C. football’s Class of 2013.

“Guys want to come here now,” Gray tells me as he takes a break between sets of throwing enough steel to build a couple Escalades.

And if they want to come, they can. D.C. high schools have the most liberal transfer policies in the country; you can go from any school to any school in the city for any reason, even just to play a sport, and you can suit up in your new school’s colors without having to sit out so much as one game. So even before charters came around, DCIAA athletes were essentially free agents. And the best players have been taking advantage of the system for years. In 2006, future New York Giants second-round pick Marvin Austin was slated as a preseason All-American at Coolidge, a DCIAA school. But then Coolidge assistant coach Moses Ware was hired by his alma mater, traditional DCIAA non-contender Ballou, and Austin quit Coolidge and enrolled at Ballou to continue playing for Ware. Four other future Division I players also jumped with Austin from Coolidge to Ballou, which that year went from projected bottom-feeder to its first city championship in school history.

This transience of talent blesses the winners and curses losers. Take Goldman. He lives in the geographical zone that would have him attending Spingarn Senior High. Spingarn has a fabulous sporting history: It’s the only high school in America to have two alums (Elgin Baylor and Dave Bing) on the NBA’s 50th Anniversary All-Time Team that was put together in 1996.

But Spingarn has been a football wasteland forever; nobody at the school could even tell me when the football team’s last winning season was. When I followed D.C. sports for Washington City Paper, I occasionally covered Spingarn’s opening day of football just to check in on the plight. Year after year, the situation left my jaw dropped. In 2005, John “Peterbug” Matthews was hired as head football coach. When he showed up for his first day at work, Matthews found the locker rooms locked and nobody at the school who would give him keys. So he broke in, and saw that the showers weren’t working. There were no practice uniforms. He didn’t have keys to the practice field, either. So he broke into that, too, only to find that the only training equipment provided for the football team consisted of one blocking sled, buried in half a foot of mud. Goldman entered high school in 2008; Spingarn was coming off an 0-9 season, and had been outscored 415-44. He never considered attending the neighborhood DCPS school.

“I’d have gone to Dunbar,” Goldman says.

Dunbar is the school that produced current NFL players Josh Cribbs, Vernon Davis and brother Vontae Davis, Arrelious Benn, and Nate Bussey. Guys with football skills transferred to Dunbar, not away from Dunbar.

Gray insists the move from Dunbar to Friendship wasn’t “all about football.” He sat out the 2011 season because of academics. He says getting the grades right in time to take one of the scholarship offers now being thrown at him was the main motivation for switching schools. He’d heard from other players that nobody knew how to get players into college better than the Friendship coach.

“I messed up over there,” Gray says. “Here, I’m focused. I’m going to go to college. I guarantee that.”

Ex-Dunbar defensive end Cavon Walker, another blue-chip prospect who was already offered a scholarship by the University of Maryland last season, also just transferred to Friendship.

As Gray says, guys want to come there now.

Friendship Football
Friendship’s ascent has come during a blighted period for scholastic athletics. The problems plaguing sports in the schools trickled down from the top. DCIAA went from troubled to utter debacle with the arrival of a new public schools chancellor, Michelle Rhee, in 2007.

Rhee, who left DCPS in late 2010, still gets lauded as a visionary by private-school parents in the city and well-meaning and well-heeled outsiders like Oprah Winfrey and filmmaker Davis Guggenheim, whose 2010 documentary feature about education reform, Waiting for Superman, fawned upon her. (Guggenheim grew up in the D.C. area, but didn’t attend a public high school; he went to Sidwell Friends, the tony private school that counts among its alums spawns of Barack Obama, Bill Clinton, Al Gore, Theodore Roosevelt, Richard Nixon, and Bob Woodward.) Yet Rhee’s far more likely to be derided as a publicity-hounding phony by anybody in D.C. who ever actually dealt with her bureaucracy.

Rhee’s deconstructive abilities and reconstructive shortcomings were blatant to folks who observed her handiwork with athletics. But one example: Within weeks of taking over as chancellor in mid-2007, she fired DCPS athletic director Allen Chin, who was in charge of running DCIAA; but Rhee kept him on the payroll and didn’t have anybody in charge of scholastic sports for six months. That started a skein in which the school system had four ADs in less than four years. “Michelle Rhee took an awful situation with sports and made it much worse,” says Dan Driscoll, who coached high school soccer in DCIAA from 2007 to 2009. “The level of neglect was hard to fathom. There was no support from the [DCPS] central office for sports when she was here. None.”

Driscoll quit coaching in D.C. schools in 2009, and began devoting more time to City FC, a sports-focused charity he cofounded. City FC’s mission includes taking gifted but underappreciated athletes from DC public schools and getting them scholarships at private preps and colleges where their abilities will be noticed.

Rhee and DCPS were hailed as athletically avant-garde in 2010 for hiring the nation’s only female high school football head coach — Natalie Randolph at Coolidge. Yet at the time of her hiring, Coolidge, like the entire DCPS system under Rhee, criminally underserved female athletes. A survey by the Sankofa Project, a watchdog group that monitors high school sports in the city, found that only 30 percent of “athletic opportunities” available at Coolidge were open to female students. A typical public high school in the suburbs (as well as Sidwell Friends, where Randolph went to high school) fields nine girls’ sports teams each fall; Coolidge had just one: varsity volleyball. Also in 2010, the National Women’s Law Center (NWLC) filed an administrative complaint with the U.S. Department of Justice requesting a federal investigation of a dozen major school districts throughout the country, including Chicago, Houston, and New York, for flouting Title IX requirements. D.C. was left out of the NWLC complaint, but only because the group’s attorneys determined that the scholastic sports bureaucracy in the city was in such administrative disarray that it wasn’t worth suing.

“The sports programs in D.C. schools are so broken, it wouldn’t make sense for [NWLC] to have included us in that now,” Janice Johnson, who worked on the Title IX action through the Sankofa Project, told me when the complaint was filed. Not one DCIAA school met its Title IX obligations at the time, or now. DCPS added some comedy to this gender-based horror show last month with the announcement that bowling would be added as a varsity sport for girls only. There are no regular commercial bowling alleys in the whole city, so the press conference to roll out the newest sport’s offering was held in suburban Maryland.

In fairness to Rhee, she ignored the male athletes in the D.C. school system, too. I remember attending the DCIAA basketball finals at Coolidge in 2009, the biggest sports night on the DCPS calendar, and heard folks buzzing about how Rhee was nowhere to be found. The Washington Post gossip column had an item a few days later that Rhee spent that evening courtside at a Cal-UCLA college basketball game, nuzzling for the cameras with her boyfriend, former NBA guard Kevin Johnson.

The shift of Gray and Walker across the river is a huge boon to Friendship and all charter school athletics, and an embarrassment not just to Dunbar, but also to DCIAA. Yet DCIAA has gotten used to embarrassments. Recent football seasons have been loaded with enough administrative debacles to make a mockery of the whole league, and the bungling can be traced directly to the instability in the DCPS athletic director’s office that Rhee instigated.

A few lowlights: In 2008, Eastern Senior High School forfeited its entire season when coaches said they couldn’t find 18 eligible players. In 2010, Eastern forfeited only its opening game because of that same lack of bodies, and then fielded a team in time to be outscored 293-0 in a seven-game season. Also in 2010, the entire Ballou team was tossed out of the Turkey Bowl, the DCIAA’s season-ending showcase game, less than 24 hours before kickoff when DCPS officials ruled that the team had put an academically ineligible player on the field. Ware, Ballou’s head coach, quit after the game, citing the dysfunction in the city’s administration of sports.

That Turkey Bowl fiasco set the tone for the 2011 season, which kicked off on Labor Day with the worst weekend in DCIAA football history, maybe the worst weekend in any league’s football history. Four games involving DCIAA teams were forfeited, all for inexcusable reasons. Dunbar’s matchup with Dunbar of Baltimore ended early when an all-hands brawl broke out. Referees blamed the fight on the D.C. team, which was losing 22-8 and had scored its first points of the night just before the donnybrook, and awarded the win to the hosts from Maryland. Days later, DCPS officials ordered Dunbar to fire rookie head coach Ashaa Cherry, and ruled that the school would forfeit two more scheduled games for allowing ineligible players to suit up.

That same weekend, Ballou canceled its game with KIPP, a D.C. charter school with a fledgling football program, with Ballou administrators announcing they couldn’t find a medical doctor to work the sidelines, as per DCIAA rules. Cardozo forfeited a matchup against Options Public Charter School claiming they couldn’t dress out the required league minimum of 18 eligible players. And Coolidge canceled its game with Bishop McNamara allegedly because Coolidge administrators couldn’t find enough security guards to work the game. “I’ve been here 20 years and I’d never heard that one before,” Anthony Johnson, McNamara’s athletic director, told me about Coolidge’s security excuse, adding that Coolidge brass stopped looking for the required guards at least eight hours before kickoff. (Coolidge also backed out of a game with Archbishop Carroll of the Catholic league last season, blaming that cancellation on an earthquake that had hit the region three days before scheduled kickoff. No other school in the area used the earthquake as an excuse for not playing ball.)

Other DCIAA teams got in four quarters over that same weekend, though probably wish they hadn’t. H.D. Woodson was blitzed 48-0 by Martinsburg (West Virginia) High School. McKinley Tech lost 39-0 to Suitland High of Prince George’s County. Anacostia lost 41-0 at Morgantown (West Virginia) High School. Spingarn High School lost 56-0 to Edmondson-Westside, a Baltimore trade school. Roosevelt took a 54-0 beating at North Hagerstown (Maryland) High. Wilson scored, but got slaughtered by Yorktown, a Northern Virginia school, 48-13.

DCIAA’s tally for the weekend: 0-10 record with four forfeits, five shutouts, with league teams outscored 308-21. This lost weekend bookended nicely with Friendship’s late-season rout of Woodson, the three-time defending DCIAA champs, in a game that local schoolboy football enthusiasts billed as the Real Turkey Bowl, to make for a year the traditional schools would like to forget.

Given the mercenary approach of D.C. players, DCIAA teams might be feeling the pain of last season’s debacles for a while. To the winner goes the talent.

“There was a time when nobody would come play for me,” Abdul-Rahim says. “I didn’t complain. I worked harder,” Abdul-Rahim says.

“I’m everybody’s best friend now,” he says.

Including the mayor’s.

Vince Gray, the mayor of D.C., also showed up to Friendship on National Signing Day. To Gray, the momentum Abdul-Rahim has created isn’t just for one school or one sport, but for the entire upstart charter school movement.

“What’s going on at Friendship is phenomenal,” Gray tells me during an interview in the mayor’s penthouse office, its walls decorated with enough D.C. sports memorabilia for a sports bar or a really big man cave. “Fundamentally, [Friendship] has demonstrated that there is a place for educational alternatives in the public sector. Education characteristically has been a monopoly, and with monopolies, you don’t get the best. You need competition. So I look at [Friendship] not just as a football program, I look at it as creating educational options that benefit these kids in a variety of ways.”

In other words, the Friendship football story has become much bigger than football.

In 2008, back when he was a mere city councilman, Gray told me that he knew the day would come when the charter schools would deserve “a seat at the table” when it came to doling out city sports championships. Friendship’s slaughter of Woodson in the Real Turkey Bowl brought that day.

So last month, Gray created a job called State Athletic Director, and filled with it a former head of the city’s Department of Parks and Recreation, Clark Ray. (Ray was fired as DPR chief in 2009 by Gray’s predecessor as D.C.’s chief executive, Adrian Fenty, shortly after word got out that Fenty ordered that his 9-year-old twin sons be allowed to play in an 8-and-under DPR-run basketball league. How Washington is that?) Gray told Ray to bring the athletic programs at all the private, public, and public charter schools in the city under one umbrella.

Football is the first sport Ray is supposed to tackle. He’s now trying to come up with a way to get the two best D.C. teams, public or private, competing “for a statewide championship.” D.C. isn’t a state, of course.

That’s bad news for DCIAA. But Gray’s got bona fides with the city’s youth sports clique. He was a star athlete at Dunbar in the early 1960s, and more than any local power broker in recent memory defends the value that sports programs bring to the school system. He gets credit for keeping the City Title basketball game alive when that contest, played each season between the DCIAA and Catholic league champs, was on the verge of extinction because of an inability to find sponsors and a decent venue. Gray also was behind the birth of the Congressional Bank Baseball Classic, an annual tourney that allows the teams from city schools to play at the local big league stadium, Nationals Park. He’s been very successful at getting sponsorship for DCIAA events, including getting Safeway to buy naming rights to the Turkey Bowl last year as part of what his office announced as a $150,000 deal. And he gets credit for sparking the city’s recent boom in kiddie football by getting DPR to take over management of all D.C.’s Pop Warner clubs when he was a city councilmember.

Baseball was Gray’s best sport at Dunbar, but high school football was the biggest game in town in his day. Back then, each season would end with a Thanksgiving game between the Catholic league champ facing the winner of the public schools league, then called the Interhigh. That game stopped being played after the 1962 rendition, in which public and all-black Eastern was beaten by private and overwhelmingly white St. John’s. The game drew 50,033 spectators at D.C. Stadium, which at that time was the largest crowd ever to see a sporting event of any kind in the history of the nation’s capital. (The previous attendance record was set by the 49,888 folks who came to see Eastern beat St. John’s in the same stadium a year earlier.) St. John’s victory and news of the record crowd were overshadowed, to put it mildly, by the massive race riot that broke out at the final gun. The violence actually became a national embarrassment; syndicated columnist Drew Pearson wrote about black kids from Eastern bloodying white priests from St. John’s, and the Saturday Evening Post teased its riot story (“Racial Crisis in Washington, D.C.”) on a May 1963 cover, the same space where placid Norman Rockwell artwork normally appeared.

A federal investigation into the riot declared that the “reputation of the Capital city of the world’s greatest democracy was tarnished.” “Our city is the most important city in America to demonstrate that Negro and white can work together, live together and play together as a symbol of democracy to nations throughout the world,” read the report issued by investigators in January 1963. Negro and white stopped playing together, at least on Thanksgiving.

Gray attended the 1962 game, and once told me that what he witnessed from the grandstands and in the streets “was horrible.” And in his years as a politician he has made several attempts to bring the City Title game tradition back, as if such a revival could heal the horrible, five-decades-old wounds the riot inflicted on Gray and his hometown. In 2007, Gray, who was chairman of the city council at the time, had discussions with representatives of the WCAC to revive the city title football game. The Washington Post‘s marketing director let it be known that the paper would sponsor the event. But the bid failed when DCIAA teams refused to give up the Thanksgiving Day date for their championship.

DCIAA still will not give up Thanksgiving. So what Gray’s really asking Ray to do is come up with a football game bigger than the Turkey Bowl. And that means Friendship has to be involved. Ray met with Abdul-Rahim last month to discuss the mayor’s idea for founding a state championship game.

Abdul-Rahim is a fan of Gray, and has had the mayor as a featured speaker at the camps the coach runs each summer for a couple hundred D.C. kids at Howard University. But being a fan doesn’t mean he’s going to go along to get along. “It would be nice to play for a title,” Abdul-Rahim told me last summer, speaking of how his requests to join DCIAA had been rejected.

But after a season filled with highs for Friendship — Goldman’s recruitment, 19 scholarships, etc. — and DCIAA debacles, Abdul-Rahim is no longer seeking the establishment’s embrace.

“The mayor comes from an era where public schools in the city were on a par with the private schools, and he wants to bring that back,” says Abdul-Rahim. “We give him the best chance to do that. But it’s like old vs. new. And the old hasn’t budged. Now, the hardest part is done for me. The talent’s been in the area, and now the kids are coming here. It’s our time right now. We’ve got the ball right now.”

The folks whose favor he curries are now on his side. The Friendship administration, a body that let Abdul-Rahim know it didn’t even want a varsity football program just eight years ago, now schedules the school’s annual open house for parents of prospective students — all students, not just those wanting to play ball — on National Signing Day.”Coach Rahim has turned me,” says Hense.

If the Goings-King-goes-to-Columbia story is his favorite story, Hense’s second favorite yarn these days is the one about the couple from Maryland who came to the campus a few weeks ago with a check for $10,377. That’s the tuition set by the D.C. government for non-residents who attend a D.C. public school.

“They said they wanted to pay so their son could play football for Coach Rahim,” Hense says. “That’s the first time I’d ever heard of people paying to go to Friendship.” Friendship, unlike the colleges it farms its players to, doesn’t give football scholarships.

Formulating a state football championship could take some time. In the meantime, the mayor has asked Friendship to schedule a game against his alma mater, Dunbar, at the beginning of next season.

“We could call it the Kickoff Classic,” Gray tells me.

But Abdul-Rahim’s not biting on that just yet, either. For one thing, he’s already got a full slate of games for the 2012 season lined up. They’re playing Manatee, a habitual Florida state champion, as well as St. John’s, the private school that was on the business end of the 1962 City Title game riot at D.C. Stadium. He says he can’t see squeezing in Dunbar at this point.

He would make room for one particular opponent, however.

“I tried to schedule Massillon,” he says. “I want to play them again.”

Dave McKenna is a writer in Washington, D.C.

Filed Under: Friends, TV