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A dual-purpose ceremony—part pep rally, part exorcism—is scheduled for next week in the gym at J.E.B. Stuart High School.
Roy Ferri, who was just hired as head football coach at the Falls Church school, will be introduced to the student body and their parents. And then Ferri plans to fill a makeshift coffin with programs, game tapes, used tickets, and assorted other remnants from recent seasons of Raiders football. He’ll take it all outside and put it in a hole.
“We’ve got to bury all the bad ghosts, all the bad karma,” says Ferri.
That’s a lot of burying. Ferri, 49, is taking over what could be the worst football program in the area.
The Raiders haven’t won a game since 2005 and will go into next season riding the longest active losing streak in Northern Virginia schoolboy football: 24 games and counting.
“It’s only 24? Great!” Ferri says with a laugh. “I thought it was at least 30. We know we suck. Well, we know we used to suck.”
Nobody, in fact, was more well-versed in Stuart’s football suckitude than Ferri when he gave up an assistant coaching gig at Centreville High last month to come to Stuart.
Make that: to come back to Stuart. This will be Ferri’s second go-around as head coach of the Raiders. In 2000, Ferri, who grew up in Arlington, got fired from the same job after winning just seven games in four full seasons. And before that, he’d been an assistant football coach at Stuart on and off since 1982.
There were some salad days early on. Stuart had an undefeated regular season and regularly won divisional championships in the 1980s. But back then Stuart had running back Charlie Garner, who would go on to star at the University of Tennessee (he helped create the myth of Heath Shuler in Knoxville) and have a long NFL career.
“The way it was when I first came to Stuart, I thought it was easy to win here,” says Ferri.
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But the balance of power in Northern Virginia football started moving westward right around the time Garner left the school after the 1989 season. Other than Annandale in the 1994 and 1995 seasons, no inside-the-Beltway team has won a state championship in 20 years.
Raider football has fallen particularly far. Those who believe in karma might attribute Stuart’s fall to the fact that the school is named after a general who used his West Point training first to kill Indians, then to fight for the losing side in the Civil War. But shifts in the region’s demographics might better explain the losing streak.
Currently, the school’s total enrollment hovers around 1,300. That’s about half as large as Stuart once was, and that makes it among the smaller schools in Northern Virginia: Stuart’s entire student body isn’t much bigger than the senior class at Westfield, a giant school in western Fairfax County and, not coincidentally, the home of the 2007 state champs.
Along with being relatively teensy, Stuart’s student body happens to be among the most ethnically diverse in the country. In 1995, the Washington Times reported that Stuart “enrolls students from 60 different countries speaking 27 languages, from Urdu to Farsi.”
Educators can point out any number of benefits that come from this diversity—but winning football ain’t one of ’em. Former coach Eric Ludden once told the Washington Post about looking at the Stuart grandstands after a referee had called timeout and seeing group of fans cheering wildly because “they thought the ref was signaling a touchdown.”
The bottom had dropped out by the 1996 season, just before Ferri started his first run as head coach, when Stuart went 0–10.
“I got the job on a Friday, and we started practice that Monday,” he says. “We went 0–10 again.”
In terms of wins and losses, things improved only slightly during Ferri’s three subsequent seasons as head coach.
Stuart has won just five games in the eight seasons since Ferri was asked to leave in 2000, putting the school’s record since 1996 at an amazing 12–107 under five different head coaches. (Stuart had a 26-game losing streak from 2000 to 2002.)
But during his time away from Stuart, Ferri proved he knows how to win, though his proving grounds weren’t a gridiron. He had a very successful run as track coach at Centreville, which is among the huger, newer schools in the western part of the county. His teams won two district titles and a region championship the last three years, and in 2007, the Post named Ferri indoor track coach of the year.
Ferri is also a math teacher, and he knows the odds are that no football coach at Stuart will ever win an equivalent honor. But, again, Ferri was aware of all the negatives when word got out that his old job was open again.
And he still wanted it back.
“Why come back? That’s a damn good question,” Ferri says, again with a laugh. “But, really, I started out coaching at Stuart, and I know this might be the last coaching job I ever have. So I said, ‘Hey, let’s go full circle.’ I’ve had all the individual stuff [through track], so for me it’s like, all right, let’s take a risk. This is my community. My kids went here. I live a few blocks away from school. I think everybody should coach at a place like Stuart. You think you can coach? Well, come to a place like Stuart and let’s see what you got.”
Memories of the Garner years have Ferri still believing the program can be a winning one. But when Ferri tells the story of a former Stuart player named Andy Anderson, it’s clear he hasn’t stayed in coaching just for the W’s.
Ferri had recruited Anderson off one of the rougher local playgrounds in the late ’90s, during his first run as head coach. Ferri showed up on Anderson’s turf and worked hard to convince the kid that playing for the school team would be a good thing, no matter how much losing they’d experience.
Soon enough, Anderson was playing football at Stuart, and the coach’s house became the weekend hangout for Anderson and buddies. Ferri got a big kick when, after one of the many Saturdays the kids spent watching college football at the house, he found a note Anderson left on the fridge that read “IOU sum bacon.”
Anderson was 24 years old when he was killed in combat in Iraq last year. So Ferri wrote an op-ed piece for the Post that recounted the player–coach relationship and confessed how lucky he felt to have a bird’s-eye view as the kid grew up. That’s a privilege available even to the coach of a losing team.
“I still have the IOU for the bacon,” Ferri wrote.