If You Build It, They Will Come: New facility has upped McKie?s grid recruiting. Credit: Darrow Montgomery

Spingarn’s got another new football coach. He’s going to turn things around.

Same as the guy before him. And before him. And before him.

Charlie McKie, 47, replaces Paris Adon at the top of the Spingarn football program. Adon won two games in two seasons before giving up the job. That’s a winning percentage in line with all the other Green Wave coaches of the past decade.

No Spingarn team has won more than two games since the turn of the century.

But whereas all his recent predecessors were stunned at how empty the cupboards were upon taking the job, McKie humbly asserts things were headed in the right direction before he took over.

“There’s an upside to Spingarn football right now,” says McKie, who played football in the city for Phelps in the late 1970s and later was the last head coach for his alma mater before that school closed a decade ago. “People don’t know that, don’t talk about that, because it’s Spingarn. But I got some kids. There’s some talent here.”

McKie is really high on Milton Jenkins, a 6-foot-2, 225-pound rising senior and two-way lineman. “He’s a Division I ballplayer, no question,” says McKie. “I’ve been around long enough to spot D-1 talent. He’s got it.”

McKie also raves about Orlando Lawson, a junior-to-be linebacker who got credit for 22 sacks last year.

In past years, McKie might have lost blue-chip talent like Jenkins and Lawson to rivals within the D.C. Interscholastic Athletic Association, the public school league. No school district in the country has transfer rules as liberal as the D.C. Public Schools’. Students can transfer to any school in the city for any reason, even if they just think the football team’s going to be better.

Those lax transfer rules are good for the odd superstar athlete. Scholarships are hardly pie-in-the-sky dreams to football players in the city these days. The secret’s out about DCIAA’s talent level. The league has produced NFL stars like Woodson’s Byron Leftwich, Anacostia’s Cato June, Coolidge’s Jerry Porter, and Dunbar’s Davis brothers—San Francisco tight end Vernon and Miami defensive back Vontae.

So if you crack the starting lineup at Dunbar, you’re going to play in front of college scouts all season long; if you crack the starting lineup at Spingarn, you might only play in front of college scouts if Dunbar happens to be on the Green Wave’s schedule. (This year, Dunbar and Spingarn tango on Sept. 25 at Spingarn.)

But the transfer edicts have created a system where the same few schools field competitive teams every season and the rest have trouble fielding any team at all.

Spingarn has been in the latter group for a long time.

“There’s still a great disparity in this city between the haves and have-nots in football,” McKie says. “You’ve got schools like Dunbar where all the kids get all their clothes from Under Armour. We need to have fundraisers just to get our kids dressed at all.”

Adon had five players show up for practice on his first day as Spingarn coach in 2007.

Another failed predecessor, Junebug Matthews, also got five kids for his first day as Spingarn coach in 2003. (Matthews’ initiation as coach also included having to break into the Spingarn practice field on Day 1, since nobody at the school had keys to the locks on any of the field’s gates; finding the school’s only blocking sled buried so deep in dried mud that it took all his players and some gardening tools to free it; discovering that the locker-room showers had no hot water; and learning that nobody at the school knew how to operate the field’s sprinkler system, meaning that new turf that had been donated a season earlier by the Redskins had already turned to dust. “And I had to buy my own footballs,” Matthews told me at the time. He went on to win three games in three years before getting fired.)

But McKie so far has fared far better than Matthews or Adon. McKie had 18 kids to work with for Spingarn’s first football practice.

Sure, that’s paltry for a suburban school—Fairfax County’s megaplex Westfield High has a couple of hundred kids go out for freshman, JV, and varsity football teams every season.

But McKie knows that at Spingarn, where just having enough bodies to field a varsity squad is a lofty goal, 18 is a Woodstock-sized contingent.

So why the almost-respectable turnout this year? McKie thinks his coming to Spingarn after years of coaching the team at nearby Brown Middle School had a lot to do with it.

“A lot of these kids, about half, I’ve already coached,” he says. “They know what a good program we had at Brown, they’ve told people about what we did there. Coming in knowing so many of the kids really helped.”

Having local heroes like Jenkins and Lawson stick around has also given some credibility to his program, McKie says, and caused other kids to give the team a shot.

And then there’s the new football stadium at Spingarn. Like all DCIAA schools other than H.D. Woodson, which was closed for reconstruction last year, Spingarn has a new artificial turf gridiron. Replacing the dust bowl that Matthews and Adon had to offer potential Green Wavers is a beautiful, state-of-the-art green-and-gold stadium good enough to make even the kids at Westfield jealous.

This will be the first full season for Spingarn to use it.

“The field really gives the kids pride, no question,” says McKie. “That’s a big help for the program. Kids want to play there.”

As of Saturday’s team meeting to start Week 2 of football practice, four more students, for a total of 22, were suiting up for practice.

That’s enough to put a whole offense and defense on the field at once. Let the suburban coaches take that for granted. McKie knows that’s a luxury this early in the season at Spingarn.

And what was the main message of McKie’s pep talk? He told them to have fun.

“That’s what I always tell them,” he says. “And we’re doing that.”

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