Friendship Without Benefits: As a charter school squad, the Knights dont even get their own field. t even get their own field. Credit: Photo by Darrow Montgomery

The best high school football team in the city has no league, no home field, and no practice field to call its own. Not even a locker room.

“Welcome to Friendship Beach!” says Friendship Collegiate Academy head coach Aazaar Abdul-Rahim, laughing with a little embarrassment as a couple of visitors survey Fort Mahan Park, the grassless knoll that serves as his squad’s rehearsal space.

Friendship’s main building, housed in a former middle school adjacent to Fort Mahan, doesn’t have a room big enough to fit Abdul-Rahim’s team. So every afternoon the players enter a set of grim Mobile Mini Storage Systems units to change into practice wear. The players’ gym bags, shoes, and other belongings are piled up amid broken glass and fast-food trash outside the graffiti-laden containers. During drills, banged up Day-Glo -orange traffic barrels fill in for tackling dummies.

It’s hard to imagine kids at a suburban school being forced to deal with this plight.

But if the amenities come up short, Abdul-Rahim’s program isn’t lacking for human resources. A lot of D.C. public schools have trouble even fielding a varsity squad. But Abdul-Rahim estimates his Friendship Knights will start the season with “about 120” players, enough for full freshman, JV, and varsity teams.

“We’ve got some talent,” Abdul-Rahim says.

No need to take his word for it. ESPN has tabbed Eddie Goldman, a senior lineman who looks taller than his roster height of 6-foot-4 and heavier than his listed weight of 307 pounds, as the second-most desired high school senior in the whole country. “The country’s best nose guard is going to make some program extremely happy,” declared a detailed scouting report from Mike Frank’s Irish Sports Daily, a blog for Notre Dame football obsessives.

Friendship also has Albert Reid, a cornerback who’s already committed to play next year with West Virginia. And Douglas Moore, another defensive back who’s accepted an offer from VMI.

Abdul-Rahim’s team has so many players with Division I potential, in fact, that college recruiters are focusing on Friendship the way British paparazzi focus on Pippa Middleton.

Abdul-Rahim became Friendship’s first and still only varsity football head coach in 2004. So he remembers the days when teams around here took his squad lightly. “One year, we lost to Cardozo 40-0, and the next week Cardozo lost to Dunbar 69-0,” he says. “Everybody wanted us to be their homecoming game.”

Nobody sought that honor this year. A preseason poll from DC Sports Fan, a local website that tracks the prep football scene, lists Friendship as the top team in D.C. proper. In the entire region, only Our Lady of Good Counsel, an incredibly moneyed Olney school loaded with blue-chip recruits, ranks higher.

Along with not having a practice space, Friendship lacks a home stadium. AbdulRahim, who’s in charge of finding fields for his team to play on, doesn’t mind going on the road.

“Most seasons we don’t have more than three games where we’re called the home team, and they’re at three different fields,” he says. “If we’re the home team, that means finding a field that’s not being used, then paying to rent the field and hiring security and paying for cleanup. It’s easier to just get on a bus, show up, and play. All our games are on the road, and that’s fine with me.”

This Sunday morning, Friendship will be on the road again: The team will be in Cincinnati facing Taft Tech in a contest that will be broadcast live on ESPN.

Yet the season opener in Ohio will also mark the closest thing Friendship football will have to a real home game. For the team’s first-ever ESPN appearance, the Friendship administration is throwing a viewing party for students, faculty, and fans inside the school building.

“This is a major mark in our history, absolutely fantastic for us,” says Barry Lofton, director of corporate and community relations for the school.

Typically, high school athletic programs gain notoriety by winning titles. But Friendship has no football titles available to win. The team’s too talented to play the city’s other charter schools, says Don Cole, commissioner of the Washington Charter School Athletic Association. “Friendship does its own thing,” says Cole. “They don’t schedule other charter schools. They’re good.”

Friendship’s athletic teams are sanctioned by D.C. Public Schools, and its players must abide by the same eligibility rules that apply to those at other schools. But despite overtures from Friendship administrators, the school is also being kept out of the city’s traditional public school league, the D.C. Interscholastic Athletic Association. So there will be no bid to the Turkey Bowl, the traditional Thanksgiving Day game that allegedly crowns the best public school football squad in the city.

In a lot of ways, Friendship’s football dominance shows how charter schools have arrived. Charters now educate nearly 40 percent of D.C.’s public school kids; Mayor Vince Gray has promised that the schools will get equal treatment compared to the traditional public schools whose administrators answer to him. But the Turkey Bowl lockout—among other insults—shows how far some individual charters still have to go.

“We’d like to play more DCIAA teams, to have some playoff round, and some opportunity to play in the Turkey Bowl,” says Lofton. “We want a seat at that table. There’s no need to look at this as us versus them, or [DCPS] versus charter. All our young people come from the same community.”

Friendship’s prominence will likely get folks talking about reforming the system to allow all schools to compete for the city title; if the Knights play up to their potential, the chatter will get loud.

Lofton welcomes such talk. He says he’s spoken with D.C. government officials about changing the rules to allow charter schools to compete for city titles, specifically the Turkey Bowl, and is optimistic. (Acting DCPS Athletic Director Willie Jackson did not return emails or phone calls for comment.)

But Abdul-Rahim lets folks in the school’s main office dwell on those matters. “If ESPN has taken notice of what we’re doing, I don’t have time for the foolishness in D.C.,” he says. Without a Turkey Bowl to aim for, he’s decided the best way to build up buzz is to crank out college athletes. Abdul-Rahim says he and his staff put together highlights for every Friendship player, sending the videos to recruiters.

“It’s a full-time job in itself,” Abdul-Rahim says of connecting his players to folks who can get them a free ride to college. “Without championships, we measure ourselves in how many scholarships we get for our kids.”

Last winter, on the NCAA’s national signing day for football players, 14 Friendship students sat on a school stage before the whole student body, faculty members, and assorted parents and announced at which colleges they’d be playing football. The ceremony was highlighted by quarterback Percee Goings’ declaration for Columbia and running back Malcolm Crockett’s opting for Pitt. Lofton’s office put out a press release about the event.

The scholarship bonanzas motivate the underclassmen to step up their game, says Abdul-Rahim. And they get parents in the city to start thinking about how to get their kids into Friendship.

“The school isn’t a hard sell for me now,” he says. “The football program has taken on a life of its own.”

There’s even a possibility that at least one traditional local powerhouse is avoiding the current Friendship team. For the past four years, Friendship has played DeMatha Catholic High School, which as of last year had more alums in the NFL than any other school in the country. But DeMatha, the region’s most successful football squad of the past couple decades, doesn’t have Friendship on its 2011 schedule.

Abdul-Rahim admits that he’s got an open date he’d like to fill, and that he would like to play DeMatha this season. But he will neither confirm nor deny rumors that DeMatha is ducking his squad.

“Nobody wants to lose to a charter school,” he says. “That’s all I know.”

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