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Kicking game remains the Achilles’ toe of D.C. prep football.
Take away the missed or otherwise botched extra points, and Dunbar didn’t do a whole lot wrong in last week’s playoff win over H.D. Woodson.
On the way to a 49-28 win and his school’s eighth straight invitation to the Turkey Bowl, the D.C. Interscholastic Athletic Association (DCIAA) championship game, Dunbar tailback/safety Vontae Davis ran past or through anybody in a Woodson uniform. Davis and Nathan Bussey, already the city’s best quarterback as a junior, played pitch-and-catch with a flair way beyond their years.
Such routs are expected from coach Craig Jefferies’ Crimson Tide this time of year. Dunbar has won seven of the last eight city championships, and every season, the Shaw high school sends players up to college ball. Senior Davis, whose brother Vernon is a Dunbar alum, a Maryland tight end, and a future first-round NFL pick, used a day off from school last week to visit the campus of Michigan State, one of many NCAA suitors. Scouts expect Bussey and wideout Arrelious Benn, also a junior, to follow Davis to a Division I program a year later.
But Dunbar’s kicking game never looked seasoned. Converting a PAT, generally thought of as one of the simplest football plays, proved problematic again and again. All but one of the team’s first-half extra-point attempts failed, because the snap was fumbled, or the hold was bad, or the kick went wide. Bussey, who moonlights as Dunbar’s kicker, showed he’s got a big-league leg by booming some kickoffs into the end zone. But by the second half, Jefferies had ripped the placekicking page from his playbook and was having his team go instead for two-point conversions after its touchdowns.
Though it probably didn’t make Jefferies feel any better, Woodson’s kicking was far worse. There wasn’t even a kicker listed on the Woodson roster; the Warriors went for two after each score.
The teams combined for 11 touchdowns, but just one kicked extra point that day. Woodson also had a 3-yard punt and several horrendous kickoffs, including one in the fourth quarter that actually went backward. A Dunbar player eventually dove on the loose ball as it sat three yards behind its starting point. The referees took several seconds before deciding that a backward boot should be treated just like a forward one and awarding Dunbar the ball where it died.
Horrific kicking has long been a staple of D.C. high-school football (“Black Men Can’t Kick?” 11/16/2001). Jefferies, who over the years has proved he can turn kids into stars at every position except placekicker, says he’s always figured cultural or racial factors prevent his players from warming to the position.
“Everybody here wants to be the running back or the quarterback or the linebacker,” he says. “Very few kids want to be kickers or punters. And, well, soccer’s not big in D.C., not with African-American kids.” (Dunbar and Woodson fielded all-black squads. Neither school has a boys varsity-soccer program.)
The inability to put the ball through the uprights didn’t hurt Dunbar against Woodson. But kicking snafus have Jefferies bugged this week nevertheless. Dunbar’s opponent in the 2006 Turkey Bowl will be Coolidge. Last month, in a game at Coolidge, the Colts dealt Jefferies’ squad its first DCIAA regular-season defeat in eight years. The final score was 27-26, and the one-point margin came courtesy of a PAT in overtime from Ebba Wege, Coolidge’s all-league kicker.
“I think we’re the only team in the city with a real kicker,” says Coolidge coach Jason Lane. “We take kicking very seriously here and will as long as I’m the coach.”
Lane, in his third year at the Takoma school, is a D.C. native who kicked for Ballou in the mid-’80s. He says the highlight of the standard Coolidge workout is a hurry-up drill that ends with his giving his kicking team 18 seconds to get on field and boot a field goal. The drill is repeated seven times in a row, every practice.
And the Colts have reaped what they’ve sown. Last year, Coolidge also had the league’s top kicker, Anthony Webley. The 2004 Colts, courtesy of Webley’s foot, earned the school’s first postseason appearance since 1987, when, with his team down and out of timeouts, he kicked a last-second 37-yard field goal to beat Roosevelt. Just as Lane saw him do in practice every day.
Back in the day, Lane was a straight-on kicker, like local hero and Redskins great Mark Moseley—and Dunbar’s Bussey. In that antiquated method, the kicker approaches the ball directly from behind and attempts to boot it with the front of the shoe, whereas soccer-style kickers strike with the side of the foot. Other than in D.C. high-school football and on ESPN Classic, straight-on kickers are nearly an extinct breed.
“Kicking went to soccer-style, and D.C. kids went away from kicking,” says Lane. “Now, it’s all about soccer-style. That’s why I stay close to [Coolidge’s] soccer team.” Both Anthony and Ebba played soccer before suiting up in helmets and shoulder pads.
The powers that be in D.C. youth football have recognized the leg shortage and are trying to bring kicking back into vogue. In DCIAA middle-school football, kicking a ball through the uprights after a touchdown is now worth two points, not the standard one point; running or passing the ball into the end zone after a score garners only one point. Allen Chin, executive director of the DCIAA, says his colleague Patricia Briscoe put that rules change in place to encourage the city’s coaches and kids to start paying attention to the kicking game.
“She saw that our high schools weren’t kicking anymore, and we were looking to come up with a way to change that,” says Chin. For the same purpose, the D.C. Coaches Association introduced the two-points-per-kick rule in its Passing League, a noncontact exhibition league run each summer.
Chin says that the future of kicking in D.C. football would benefit from the development of improved soccer programs within DCIAA. High-school coaches in surrounding suburbs, where soccer is as much a part of the culture as the long commute, usually have no problem finding a kid who can boot an extra point. Chin says currently just seven of his league’s 15 member schools have boys varsity-soccer programs.
Lane says his special-teams recruiting chores would also be made easier if D.C. kids had some folks who looked like them kicking footballs on their TV and video-game screens.
“There’s nobody for them to imitate,” says Lane.
He’s got a point. Black placekickers have never come close to gaining a stranglehold on the position, though in recent years, the NFL did feature the occasional Obed Ariri or Donald Igwebuike. But no longer.
This week, video-games giant EA Sports shipped Madden NFL 06 for Xbox 360, the latest model of the best-selling product in the company’s gazillion-dollar product line. There will be no black kickers for gamers to choose from in the new Madden.
“Our game just reflects who is in the NFL,” says Chris Erb, product manager for EA Sports. “We don’t make people up.”—Dave McKenna