Bladensburgs varsity football team on Sept. 7s varsity football team on Sept. 7 Credit: Kelyn Soong

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Around 2 p.m. on a recent Saturday, Antonio Williams leaned into a microphone inside the press box at Bladensburg High School and bellowed to the crowd of several dozen fans below.

“It’s a good day for football,” Williams said, pausing for effect. “Varsity football that is!”

A few yards away, Renee Bangura and Tracy Mathis stood along a railing and cheered for the players in maroon and white. “We Blade, baby!” Mathis screamed repeatedly while waving her pom-pom. Her son, Sean, is a junior left guard for the Mustangs. Bangura’s son, David, also played for Bladensburg and graduated in 2018.

Varsity football has officially returned to the Prince George’s County high school. The school canceled its varsity program last season due to low participation during summer workouts and a lack of experienced players. Only about 30 players showed up for practices, and school officials elected to just field a junior varsity team. This year, coaches decided to only have a varsity team, which consists of about 50 players.

Two other area high schools, Park View and Manassas Park in northern Virginia, also dropped varsity football last year before bringing it back this season.

For Williams, who is the school’s varsity boys’ basketball head coach and moonlights as the DJ and announcer during football games, the return of the varsity program impacts more than just the athletic department. He graduated from the school in 1997. This is his home.

“It means a lot,” Williams says. “Not only for our kids, our student athletes, and our coaches, but for our community as well. For the kids to not have football to play, that’s one less sport for them to [stay] off the streets … For the kids, you’re known around school as a varsity football player. There’s nothing wrong with JV, but we all know it’s a highlight on varsity sports here.”

Depending on whom you ask, the cancelation of the varsity football program last year stemmed from different problems. 

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The school recently hired Bryan Trueblood as its athletic director, the third person in that position in three years. In 2017, Bladensburg hired former NFL player Byron Westbook, a Fort Washington native and DeMatha Catholic High School alum, to replace Lester Overton as its football coach. Participation grew under Overton, but the team went 9-21 during his three-season tenure.

Bangura says that “a lot of players and a lot of the parents” disagreed with the coaching change because of their close connection with Overton, a long-time coach in Prince George’s County who graduated from Oxon Hill High School. “We have consistent coaching [now],” she adds, “[but] when the AD changes a lot, where is the stability? I think that’s the key to our sports program as a whole.”

Trueblood previously served as the athletic director at Central High School. The size of Bladensburg’s student body appealed to him. 

“It gives you an opportunity to work with more kids in the building and really develop some of the programs,” he says. “Because if they’re not doing well, at least you got the people capacity, the people capital to really try to tap into that.”

Both Trueblood and Bladensburg principal Aisha Mahoney have made installing turf fields and lights at the school a major goal. The school plays its home games on Saturday afternoons instead of Friday nights due to the lack of lights on the field. Trueblood, who joined the staff earlier this month, says he hopes to see it happen “within the next year.”

“Definitely a big vision is to play under the lights,” says Trueblood, who hails from Florida. “Have the town kinda shut down, everyone pack the stadium … Right now, on Saturdays, we’re sharing with college football, but on Friday nights, that can be ours.”

Trueblood believes the turf upgrade will attract more potential players. Several other Prince George’s County schools have added turf fields in recent years. “That’s a huge recruiting tool to get [students] excited,” he says. “Like, oh, we got a new field. We wanna go out there.”

Some Bladensburg supporters have pointed out that parents may be concerned about letting their children play football as the links between the sport and head injuries have continued to strengthen. The National Federation of State High School Associations (NFHS) announced earlier this month that participation in high school football across the country dropped for the fifth consecutive year.

“I think it’s good paying more attention to safety concerns,” says Kimberly Meyer-Chambers, whose son, Isaiah Chambers Jr., is a senior offensive lineman on the team. “Now it’s more on parents’ radar. But I don’t have a lot of concern for him … He’s one that is a self-advocate in a way. If he was hurt, he would definitely make it known.”

But more than anything, Westbrook, the coach, believes that it’s the lack of youth sports in the Bladensburg community that prevents the school from fielding a larger, more experienced team. While the Bladensburg Community Center allows local kids to participate in a variety of activities, the town does not have a Boys & Girls Club, which Westbrook sees as a problem.

“You gotta bring back youth sports,” Westbrook says. “It’s kinda hard to have kids in Bladensburg wanting to play football in high school, but at the same time, they don’t start until high school … We have a lot of parents, a lot of adults, always complaining about these kids being out in the streets and stuff like that. Well, give us something constructive to do. We don’t have anything constructive for the kids in this community to do. Yeah, we have a community center, but we have nothing structured as far as a football team, basketball team, whatever sport it is from a youth sports standpoint.”

“Once we have that, maybe we can get some feeder programs into Bladensburg with kids that have experience,” he continues. “We don’t have that right now, but the county has to support us to get that. We can’t do everything on our own. We need help. We need money. We need assistance, but where’s that going to come? We need it. We’re looking for it still.”

Earl Hawkins, the coordinating supervisor of athletics for Prince George’s County Public Schools, praises how the Bladensburg program has grown in the last year. “I think the coaches have definitely shown great deal of interest in the community,” he says.

When asked about Westbrook’s comments, Hawkins pointed out that youth sports come through the Department of Parks and Recreation, and that he deals with high school sports.

According to Kira Calm Lewis, the spokesperson for the Department of Parks and Recreation in Prince George’s County, most of the football programs are organized by Boys & Girls Clubs and recreational leagues. “We support them by either providing space, field, [or] time,” she says, adding that the Bladensburg Community Center has hosted football camps before.

In its first varsity game in over a year, Bladensburg lost to Northwestern High School, 46-0. Two years ago, Northwestern received a $300,000 donation from the Washington football team’s charitable foundation to build a synthetic turf field.

But for Bladensburg, it’s one step at a time. The junior varsity team finished last season with a 7-2 record.

“I’m glad through all of that adversity, we see the numbers here and we see a bright future for Bladensburg football,” says Bangura. “So we don’t want to dwell on the past. We’re going to push forward.”

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