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There’s not much to do on a bus. So on the 360-mile ride to North Canton, Ohio, where his Coolidge Colts would open the 2006 season against Hoover High School last week, coach Jason Lane had time to dwell on the differences between D.C. football and football everywhere else.

The bus ride itself, for example. Lane doesn’t want to play every opener 360 miles from home. But Coolidge, like a lot of schools belonging to the D.C. Interscholastic Athletic Association (DCIAA), hits the road each September because the trips mean a guaranteed payday—“We get $5,000 for this,” Lane tells me by cell phone during his long ride—which helps with the budget shortfalls that all public-school athletic programs here suffer from.

Seventy kids came out for Lane’s team this year, and he brought 50 of them to Canton. The large number of prospects is the payoff for a 2005 season in which Coolidge was the feel-good story of the league. In the regular season, the underdog Colts beat perennial powerhouse Dunbar in overtime 27-26, giving the Crimson Tide its first league loss in eight years. The Colts then made it all the way to the city championship game. (Dunbar won the rematch.)

Three-year lettermen Wayne Ouzts and Andre Glanville are among those returning to lead the 2006 Colts.

“We’ve been revived at Coolidge by winning,” says Lane. “I think we can match what we did last year.”

But, for all the positives, it’s a group of nonreturning lettermen and an assistant coach from last year’s Coolidge squad who are hogging all the attention.

Last spring, Coolidge assistant Moses Ware was hired as the head coach at Ballou. Ware had starred for Ballou in the late ’80s, had a great college career as a receiver for North Carolina Central, then bounced around the NFL.

But to Lane’s dismay, Ware’s first move after taking the Ballou job was to convince a number of very talented rising seniors—including running back Dwan Thornton, linebackers Quincy Porter and Romale Tucker, and All-American lineman Marvin Austin—to leave Coolidge and play for him across town at his alma mater.

The transfers, which represent the most momentous intraleague talent shift in DCIAA history, have created the biggest buzz at Ballou since the mercury spill of 2003. They’ve also highlighted something that makes schoolboy football in the city a very unique ballgame. “D.C. is the only place something like that can happen,” Lane says. “No coach anywhere else would have to deal with losing players like that.”

He’s right.

Recruiting is generally regarded as a collegiate endeavor. Just before the transfers were announced, in fact, Lane had talked up Ware’s coaching and Austin’s play in Irish Sports Report, a newsletter that monitors recruiting minutiae at Notre Dame, just one of the schools that have been courting the 300-pound Austin ever since he was a freshman running back for Coolidge. The Sabre Edge, a publication that covers the same turf for University of Virginia football fans, has said Tucker is coveted by the Wahoos. The Washington Post reported Thornton was successfully wooed by Kent State. (According to Lane, Porter is the nephew of Jerry Porter, the Oakland Raiders receiver and a former Coolidge star.)

But at public high schools in probably every jurisdiction but this one, the player transaction between Coolidge and Ballou would be verboten.

Take what happened in Louisiana last week: The state athletics administrator stripped Bastrop High School of its 2005 football championship, ruling that the school had illegally recruited five players. Among the transfers was all-state quarterback Randall Mackey. The ruling has gotten national attention because it was handed down the same week as the one-year anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, which washed away the players’ previous school, Port Sulphur.

To anybody questioning the fairness of punishing kids who, because of the storm, were forced to find a new school, state athletic administrators essentially said, “Rules are rules!”

And, conversely, in D.C., no rules are no rules.

“Nothing illegal went on,” says Allen Chin, head of the DCIAA. “Here, there are no geographic zones or residential schools that kids have to go to because of where they live. I know other areas have them, but here, these kids here can apply [during the summer break] to go anywhere they want to go, and there is no penalty. It’s been that way for a long time, and I didn’t really hear anything. But suddenly, you get a big All-American who transfers, and everybody’s crying about this now. But whenever people ask me, I say the same thing: ‘There is no rule against this.’”

Lane, a D.C. native who also played for Ballou in the ’80s, is among those who would lobby for a no-transfer edict. He says he felt the same way long before he watched Moses cross the river with some of his flock.

“I’d love to see the rules changed here,” he says. “Because of [open enrollment], players all over the city want to play at Woodson and Dunbar, the teams that always win. I know [underclassmen] at every other school look to see who’s playing their position at Woodson and Dunbar, and when the stars graduate, all those kids want to transfer to Woodson and Dunbar to take their place. I know kids want an outlet other than just Woodson and Dunbar, and this year, hopefully, by winning, I can give them one at Coolidge.”

Chin concedes, however, that the Coolidge–Ballou situation and the notoriety surrounding it will force the DCIAA to revisit the matter of whether the open-enrollment policy should stay on the books. He doubts any revisions will be enacted, however.

“For a number of reasons—declining enrollment, so many charter schools, so many high schools setting up specialized academies for business or science and math—kids can go to any school,” he says. “If a parent says it would be better for their child to go to a school, that’s a reason. If we suddenly said you can’t go to school for athletics, how would we ever enforce that? There’s no way.”

Ware did not return messages for this story. Contacted at the school, Edwin Buckner, athletic director at Ballou, declined to discuss the transfer situation.

Lane says he’s talked with Ware occasionally since the roster pillaging, but they haven’t discussed the transfers and have kept the conversation “just about football.” The Coolidge coach also says that he only briefly mentioned the matter to this year’s team.

“I made one very short comment the first practice: ‘Life goes on. Now let’s play football!’ That was it,” he says.—Dave McKenna