Public-Private Partnership: All-star game harks back to intermural rivalries of yore.
Public-Private Partnership: All-star game harks back to intermural rivalries of yore. Credit: Darrow Montgomery

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The inaugural All-City High School Senior Bowl, held over the weekend at Eastern Senior High, matched top players from the city’s public and private schools in a postseason game.

Just like old times.

There was a day when one particular public-private matchup—the so-called City Championship played between the Interhigh and Catholic League champions—highlighted the local sports calendar.

“Those games were huge,” says D.C. Council Chairman Vincent C. Gray, a D.C. native and Dunbar grad. “I’d go every year to watch that. Everybody went to that game.”

But the tradition ended, for all intents, after the 1962 City Championship, played on Thanksgiving Day at D.C. Stadium, now called RFK Stadium. That game drew 50,033 fans, the biggest crowd to ever see any sporting event in this town’s history. (The previous recordholder was a Redskins–Cowboys game at D.C. Stadium, also in the fall of 1962.) WTOP broadcast the game live.

“I remember that game: Eastern against St. John’s, played right over there,” says Gray, pointing toward RFK, a few hundred yards down East Capitol Street, while standing on the Eastern field, where he served as honorary coin-tosser for Saturday’s All-City game. “I was there. Man, that was bad.”

The badness Gray recalls was a race riot between Eastern’s almost-all-black following and St. John’s almost-all-white fan base that broke out in the stands at the end of the game (won by St. John’s, 20-7) and spread into the surrounding neighborhood. A reported 400 people were injured. At least nine arrests were made.

“It was scary,” says longtime Anacostia coach Willie Stewart, another Dunbar alum who attended the 1962 game. “I remember me and my friends from the neighborhood had gotten up to leave just before the game ended, so we were at the exit and when the gun went off we saw all those kids running on the field from the home side to the visitors’ side. By the time we got home, the news bulletins were all about the big fight at D.C. Stadium. Blacks against whites. Real ugly.”

Within hours of the brawl, the following year’s City Championship was canceled. The whole brouhaha became an international news story: Izvestia, an official publication of the Soviet government, cast the event as symptomatic of all that ailed America.

In an article titled “Bloodshed in Washington,” a writer for the Communist Party organ asserted that the riot “revealed that racial hatred flourishes in American society and the schools present a model of discrimination and violence.”

An attempt to revive the annual matchup in 1972 failed due to a lack of support from the private schools and white fans.

The season-ending game, and some would say the whole of D.C. public school football, hasn’t yet recovered.

But, perhaps because they remember how things were and personally witnessed how it all ended so horribly, Gray and Stewart have been working to bring back public-private sportsmanship.

Gray has been using his governmental pull to try to increase the intermural competitions. He lobbied to get the City Championship basketball game, played annually between the champs of the public school league, now called the D.C. Interscholastic Athletic Association, and the Catholic schools’ conference, now known as the Washington Catholic Athletic Conference, moved from the gym at Coolidge Senior High to the Verizon Center.

Gray also worked to put together the Congressional Bank Baseball Classic, a tournament played in May at Nationals Stadium that featured DCIAA powerhouse Wilson against hoity-toity privateers from St. Albans.

And Gray was a big supporter of the All-City Senior Bowl, founded this year by the D.C. Sports and Entertainment Commission. He walked the sidelines at Eastern in the same jersey that the public school all-stars, called the East team, wore in the game. (Councilmember-elect and Mackin Catholic grad Michael A. Brown served as honorary captain of the private school all-stars, dubbed the West team. The squads’ names weren’t meant to be too descriptive: There were kids from both sides of the river on both teams.)

“I think we should bring the city title game back and have a real city championship,” says Gray. “I don’t know if we can return to what it was [pre-1962], for a lot of reasons. Now we’ve got charter schools starting to play football, and other private schools in the city [that aren’t in the WCAC] that are pretty good now—like St. Albans and Sidwell Friends. And there are questions about when the game will be played, because everybody wants Thanksgiving Day for their own leagues. But sports is a big part of the revitalization of our schools, and I think the [Senior Bowl] is a step in that.”

Stewart served as head coach of the public school all-stars in the Senior Bowl. Though it’s not yet as marquee a matchup as the city title game he remembers from his youth, it’s a start.

“This is different than what we had, since now we play each other in an all-star game,” says Stewart. “But I’m hopeful it will lead to more public-private games. We’re excited about the possibility of a long-lasting rivalry.”

Both Gray and Stewart were also happy that the new all-star game was being played at Eastern. No athletic entity in the city has fallen any farther than Eastern’s football program.

“Eastern was the best football team in the city when I was in school,” says Gray. “They were in the championship every year. What’s happened there now is a shame.”

Eastern’s football stadium was rebuilt this year, and after months of work and a few million dollars of public money, the school now has as fine a place to play or watch a game as any high school gridiron in this city.

But the new digs went basically unused this season. Eastern coach Burnell Irby had trouble getting players to come out for the team when practice started this summer, so he forfeited the first few games on Eastern’s schedule while trying to recruit more bodies after school opened. When the boypower shortage persisted, he was forced to call off the whole season in October—without ever playing a game.

Michelle Rhee’s overhaul of the school system includes a plan to progressively shut down Eastern—the school did not enroll any ninth graders this year, won’t enroll any 10th graders next year, no 11th graders in 2010-2011, and will close completely a year later.

“I don’t know if it’ll ever come back,” says Irby, who has been coaching District schoolboys for 25 years, the last 11 at Eastern.

Stewart didn’t want to see the football powerhouse of his youth go down without a fight. When Eastern’s season was canceled, he invited Irby and any Eastern students who wanted to play ball to join the Anacostia team. The Eastern coach and five players accepted the offer.

And Stewart also asked Irby to be part of his coaching staff for the debut D.C. Senior Bowl game.

“So he finally gets to coach a home game at Eastern on his new field,” Stewart says with a laugh.

Alas, the same sort of attendance problems that crushed Eastern’s 2008 season, and have been crippling public school football for decades, carried over to the Senior Bowl. Two Eastern players were on the preliminary roster for the West team, released days before the contest, but neither player showed up.

“The kids told me they’d be here,” Irby says. “I don’t know what happened to them.”

Players from every DCIAA school except Eastern were on the East’s gametime roster.

St. John’s, the private school involved in the infamous 1962 game that changed the shape of D.C. athletics forever, was well represented on the Eastern field: St. John’s’ quarterback Ed Thomas was named offensive MVP after leading his private school mates on the West team to a last-second 23–22 win.

Nobody rioted.