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Last spring, Peterbug Matthews turned in a job application to administrators at Spingarn Senior High School so he could continue as head coach of the football team. The standard three-year coaching contract he’d signed when he was hired in 2003 was up for renewal.
Matthews didn’t have much in the way of wins to show for his time on the job—a 3-17 record ain’t exactly Lombardi material in the world outside Spingarn.
But, then again, Matthews’ fate was in the hands of people at the school, who surely knew that coaching at Spingarn isn’t about wins and losses. After all, he inherited a team that had earned no wins and scored only 12 points the entire previous season, and Spingarn hadn’t had a winning season in more than a decade before he took over. So, Matthews figured, the application process would just be a formality.
Instead, he says, the powers that be at the school told him that they’d decided to go “in a new direction.” That’s athletic-director-speak for “You’re fired!”
“I don’t know what direction they want to go in,” he says. “I guess they just wanna keep things in limbo at Spingarn.”
So, on a recent Thursday evening, as the Green Wave begins practice for the 2006 season without him, Matthews sits outside the Peterbug Matthews Shoe Repair Academy, his cobblery on Capitol Hill, going over his Spingarn tenure. It’s a tale of administrative neglect so horrible that only the heroic folks who coach sports in D.C. public schools can relate to it.
Take, for example, Matthews’ first day on the job in August 2003. The combination of the Green Wave’s awful losing skein and the transfer policy of D.C. schools—it’s the only jurisdiction around here, and maybe anywhere, where a student can choose to attend an out-of-boundary school simply because he likes the athletic program—meant that anybody with any football aspirations wasn’t enrolled at Spingarn.
Only five kids showed up to try out for the team.
The hazing of the new coach grew more comically tragic when he tried to lead his handful of charges to the football field for their first practice.
“The gate was locked, and nobody at the school had keys to the field,” says Matthews, who still teaches shoe repair at Spingarn. “I had to get out some wire cutters and cut a big hole in the fence so we could practice.”
The football field, though renovated only a couple seasons earlier with turf donated by the Washington Redskins, was already a grass-free dust bowl before his team ever got a chance to wear it out.
“Nobody at the school knew how to use the sprinkler system,” he says.
The locker rooms weren’t much use, either.
“Nobody at the school knew how to turn on the hot water,” he says, “so we couldn’t really shower.”
The one blocking sled available to his team was buried so deep in dried mud that he and his assistants had to “use an ax” and other gardening tools to free it.
“And I had to buy my own footballs,” Matthews says.
All of this, remember, was before he’d actually coached a game. League rules mandate that a team suit up at least 18 players, so Spingarn’s 2003 season was held up because he couldn’t find enough bodies to fill out a roster. But, after three forfeits, the coach cobbled together a team from within the school’s hallways and opened his head-coaching career by getting crushed at Wilson. Yet Matthews calls the 41-0 blowout “the highlight” of his three-year tenure.
“I knew all it took to get that team together just so we could play, without any support at all from the school,” he says. “I was very proud of our kids just for showing up, and I told them that then, and I’m still proud of that.”
The deprivations continued once the season began. The school provided him with only one water bucket, Matthews says, and he was instructed not to ever fill it with anything but water.
“I was told I couldn’t use our bucket for Gatorade, like all the other teams have, because that would stain the bucket, and it was the only bucket the school had,” he says. “And nobody gave me spring water to fill this thing up with, so I was told to just fill it with the hose they had down on the field. And this was at a time when everybody in the city was being told not to drink the water because it might have lead in it. So none of the kids wanted to drink this stuff.”
He also remembers watching his players shiver on the sidelines as a cold rain fell during a game at Eastern.
“My kids are soaked, and they have to look across the field to see the players on the other team looking all warm under their ponchos. We didn’t have ponchos. My kids are frozen!” he says, walking like a mummy to show how stiff the elements left his players.
Matthews saw how ragtag his team’s uniforms were, so he organized a fundraiser at Langston Golf Course to pay for new ones. The bad news was, he was put in charge of keeping the new uniforms clean.
“We didn’t have a washing machine that worked at the school,” he says. “So I had to take them to the Laundromat by myself and use my own money. The people at the school told me, ‘Just get a receipt, Bug, and we’ll reimburse you!’ I’m thinking: Have you ever seen a washing machine at a Laundromat that gave you a receipt? I’m punching in 36 quarters at a time, waiting for my receipt. Never got one.”
Spingarn went 0-6 in Matthews’ first season, not counting the forfeits, and was outscored 253-46 for the year.
Fortunes improved some in 2004, with big wins over Eastern (34-0) and Anacostia (54-12). Matthews was also proud of the rivalry he’d tried to kick-start with Fairmount Heights High, in Prince George’s County. He bought trophies with money from his own pocket to give to the winning team and most valuable player of what he’d hoped would be an annual series between the schools. And Matthews thought that the Spingarn program had turned a corner last season. The Green Wave won its division of the summer passing league, a preseason noncontact confederation run by the D.C. Coaches Association. Then 35 kids showed up for the first day of practice for the 2005 season.
But the team won only one game last year. Matthews says the highlight of the season came during the loss to H.D. Woodson, a perennial winner of the DCIAA East Division and one of the haves in a league loaded with have-nots. The final score of that game was 50-6 in favor of Woodson.
“But our kids scored on Woodson, and that was the first time anybody from Spingarn had scored against them in 10 years,” he says. “We were cheering on our sidelines like we’d just won the Super Bowl. The Woodson players and coaches are pointing and yelling, ‘Look at the scoreboard!’ I’m saying, ‘Forget the score! We scored!’”
That apparently wasn’t enough to appease the panel of Spingarn administrators who turned down Matthews’ application. Athletic Director Bruce Williams didn’t return phone calls for this story.
Matthews isn’t the only one bugged by the school’s decision.
“I thought Peterbug did a real good job with what he had at Spingarn,” says Bob Headen.
Headen’s judgements carry some weight on local gridirons. He began coaching high-school football in the city in 1964. And this season, he’s coming out of retirement to handle the defense at H.D. Woodson, where he was head coach from 1971 until 1999. Woodson, along with Dunbar, are the most prominent programs in town, and he feels for the coaches at schools who are trying to catch up.
“I know at Woodson we’ve got the best-dressed team in the city, with three uniforms for the varsity,” Headen says. “But it’s no thanks to the city. This city doesn’t spend any money on its athletes. We only have uniforms because my old players have been very generous with their money.”
Headen cites 1998 Woodson grad and current Jacksonville Jaguar QB Byron Leftwich as being particularly giving.
Skeezie Payne, a multiple-sport star at Spingarn in the late ’50s and a longtime friend of Matthews, also says that his old school did his buddy wrong. Payne points out that no coach or prep athlete in the suburbs would ever have to put up with the crap that Matthews and his kids went through at Spingarn.
“But in the city, this has become so—so commonplace!” says Payne, a big man who seems to get bigger when he’s angry. “You step back, you can’t believe that people just let this stuff go on now, let kids be treated like this. The coaches get nothing. This city has money now. Where does it all go? Look at any school in Virginia. What about the kids? If a coach had to go through what Bug went through, parents there would go crazy, and somebody would probably be in jail. Here, it just goes on, and nobody does anything about it, because that’s the way it is.”
Matthews says he plans to attend Spingarn games this year and root them on as a fan. The firing also gives him more time to spend at his shoe-repair business.
“I don’t want to be the bitter, angry ex-coach. Not at all,” he says. “I’ll miss coaching. I can leave the game at halftime now, not wait around to make sure every kid’s all right, that every kid’s got a ride. I can work more, too. I’m not with the kids anymore, but I can still save soles.”—Dave McKenna