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Eleven kids showed up for the first official meeting of the 2008 Spingarn Senior High School football team.
Second-year head coach Paris Adon had laid out piles of helmets, jerseys, pads, and protective cups inside the school’s workout room for prospective players.
He’d spent the hours before the first meeting making posters—saying SUPPORT SPINGARN FOOTBALL!—using posterboard and markers he’d bought a day before at a Dollar Store with his own dollars. His plan was to give players the posters, along with buckets and candy he’d also bought with his own money, and send them out to Benning Road to raise funds for a scheduled trip to play in West Virginia.
There were enough posters and gear for a whole team.
But a whole team never shows up this early at Spingarn. So 11 kids, including some who are ineligible to play ball, will have to do as practice begins for the Green Wave.
“Last year I had five,” Adon tells me with a smile. “Welcome to Spingarn football!”
Adon, 28, got his welcome last year, when he left a job as an assistant coach at a Prince George’s County charter school to take the top job at Spingarn. He knew he was taking the least desirable football job in town and getting paid basically nothing to take it. Adon says he got a $2,500 stipend as head coach last year, which he split with all his assistants.
The Green Wave went 0-9 and was outscored 415-44.
Winless seasons and silly point differentials are the norm here. It’s impossible to find anybody at Spingarn who can tell you the last time the school had a winning team.
Coaches and kids leave. The losing stays.
Adon says he’s put together “a five-year plan” that ends with Spingarn winning seven games in a season, and he promises he’ll stick it out until his goal is met. He didn’t want the new players dwelling on the sorry football legacy they’re about to become a part of.
So in preparation for this year’s first meeting, he posted motivational football quotes all over the workout room. WE DIDN’T LOSE THE GAME. WE JUST RAN OUT OF TIME! and SHOW ME A GOOD LOSER AND I’LL SHOW YOU A LOSER! were among the chosen nuggets from Vince Lombardi.
Lombardi coached at RFK Stadium, just across Benning Road NE from Spingarn, about 40 years ago. But his words seem as out of place at Spingarn as Gandhi’s would in Dick Cheney’s office.
Adon can’t be blamed for the mess. It takes a village to produce a program this lousy.
It takes, for example, a school administration that has made Spingarn a place where parents don’t want to send their kids. A recent report in the Washington Post showed that just 17 percent of Spingarn students passed the math exam and 19 percent passed the reading exam in standardized tests given at all DCPS schools. Those are among the worst numbers in the city.
And it takes athletic administrators who do nothing to help the football coach get any players, then fire the coach every few seasons for not winning enough. And it takes a faculty that does nothing to help the coach keep players eligible.
“I started a tutoring program here and went to teachers to ask for help, and a lot told me they’d help,” says Adon. “None of them helped. None showed up. Now the grades are killing me.”
The classroom failings loom large at this season’s first football meeting. Very large.
One of the 11 kids who showed up, the largest by several inches and dozens of pounds, walks over to Adon wearing a Spingarn jersey under a new set of shoulder pads he’d just taken from the equipment piles.
“How do they look, coach?” the big kid says.
“Looks great,” Adon tells him. “But you can’t wear them, and you know you can’t wear them because I just talked to you about it. You don’t have the grades. Take them off.”
As the man-child wanders off, shedding the pads and school colors, Adon tells me the 6-foot-4, 300-pound lineman didn’t earn the minimum 2.0 GPA last year required for anybody wanting to participate in D.C. school athletics.
He’ll have to sit out all season. Another lineman was disqualified for the same reason, Adon says.
“I’m going to let them stay with the team, be with us this season, to keep them off the streets or whatever,” says Adon. “But they can’t play. We could use them.”
And to create and maintain a program as awful as Spingarn, it takes the most open enrollment system in the country. DCPS students can transfer to any school for any reason, including a desire to play football for a team that wins every few Fridays in the fall.
The students’ freedoms hamstring coaches at crummy football schools. Nobody grows up wanting to play ball for Spingarn anymore, not even the kids in the neighborhoods surrounding the school—not when they can go to Dunbar or Woodson or one of the few other schools where football gets at least some respect.
“I had to go to middle schools all the time just to get some of these kids,” Adon says, pointing at the players who showed up for Day 1, “just recruit ’em and recruit ’em and recruit ’em for Spingarn—and they all live in the Spingarn boundary! I know at least 20 kids that live in Spingarn’s boundaries that are playing football for other schools right now.”
Adon came up with a decent recruiting pitch to give to students during his first offseason as Spingarn coach: “If you play football at Spingarn, you play,” he says. “And at Spingarn, there’s no J.V., no freshman [team]. At Spingarn, if you want to play football, you play varsity!”
Still, given the attendance at this year’s opening day, Adon’s pitch ain’t enough. Just like all the Spingarn coaches who came before him, Adon will be stalking kids in the hallways when school opens looking for enough bodies to field a team.
Troy Mathieu, the former Grambling State University athletic director who became the new athletic director for D.C. Public Schools earlier this month, says that so far he’s had too much to learn about the overall sports scene here to focus on Spingarn’s woes.
But he’s already aware of the have/have-nots situation in city football and has spoken with Adon about the hardships.
“I told him we will support him as much as we can,” Mathieu says. “It’s a part of my job and the staff here to go in and see if we can improve those numbers. It’s hard to run a varsity program with those numbers.”
This year was supposed to be different for Spingarn football. The Green Wave was going to get a new artificial turf field and a rebuilt stadium. The new facility would recruit kids to the program all by itself. That was the plan.
But at Spingarn, plans don’t work out. Though the improvements project was announced more than a year ago—about half the city’s high schools got their new turf fields last season—the work at Spingarn won’t be completed in time for the team’s 2008 opener. In fact, as of the day of the first meeting for Spingarn football, the stadium area was nothing but a big brown job site that gave no hint that a football field will ever be in place.
“I know the field is coming, and I want them to do it right,” says Adon. “But it would have been nice to have something green for the kids to look at. Now, I have to find places for us to play our games.”
In other words: This year isn’t going to be different for Spingarn football.