The Stars aren’t playing as if God’s on their side. No, in this preseason scrimmage, the boys in blue are getting thumped all over Lamond-Riggs Park by their hosts and fellow D.C. youth-football squad, the Steelers, a team of 110-pounders based at the Northeast park.
The Steelers aren’t happy merely dominating the Stars on both sides of the ball, scoring a touchdown seemingly on every other play on offense and just about as often on defense. And the home team is also hitting its inexperienced, smaller guests after every whistle and taunting them before every snap with group screams of “Our house! Our house!”
Even the Steelers coaching staff is pumping up the slaughter, yelling at Stars players and screaming for the Steelers to inflict more damage. The Steelers heed that order snap after snap.
Between Steelers scores, a Stars player runs over to the sidelines and asks his mother if she’s paid the team’s registration fee yet. The kid, some 15 minutes into his football career, says he wants to quit and go home. Alas, Mom gives him the bad news: She’s already sent in the check. He goes back on the field in time to take more punishment.
But through it all, the Stars’ coach, Basil Vanderhall, stays upbeat. He greets the taunts and jeers of the opposing coaches with only a smile, which he also wears as he yells, “Huddle up!” to his squad after each unpiling.
It’s the only instruction the Stars seem able to follow.
“I knew it would be tough today,” Vanderhall will say. “The [Steelers’] kids are a lot bigger than my kids. And it’s our first game.”
Vanderhall, 43, oversees athletic programs at the Islamic Saudi Academy, a K–12 school founded in 1984 and based in Alexandria. He grew up in Petworth and played football and baseball at Coolidge High School. Vanderhall, who converted to Islam in 1996, would like to introduce those decidedly American pastimes into the academy’s sports curriculum as soon as possible.
He knows that many of the parents of students at the academy, which has a hefty immigrant population among its 2,000 enrollees and concentrates its athletic efforts on soccer and basketball, are unfamiliar with the games he played in high school.
Vanderhall hopes that his founding of the Stars will speed up the formation of a football program at the academy and that one day the Stars will produce players for the school’s squad. (He named the squad after the Washington Stars, a local semipro football team that he once played for and owned. “I still own the name and had some jerseys and helmets with the logo lying around,” he explains.)
“When I was growing up, all around me I saw Christians and Catholics and Jews running sports programs for their kids, as a way to help the kids and teach them how to interact with society,” says Vanderhall. “With the Stars, I’m trying to do the same thing. If we say as Muslims we have the right religion, we have the truth, then we should be doing things such as having these programs for the kids and taking care of the homeless and taking care of the needy. It’s our civic duties as Muslims to do this sort of thing.”
Vanderhall says that “more than half” of the 39 kids in the Stars’ program came from his recruiting efforts at the Islamic Saudi Academy and among members of the Islamic Center of Maryland in Gaithersburg.
“Most of my kids have never played football,” he says.
Anybody watching the action at Lamond-Riggs, as the Stars play the first scrimmage in their brief history, could pretty much guess that Vanderhall’s bunch only recently learned how to buckle a chin strap. Grasping concepts such as punting, passing, and kicking will, from the looks of things, take the kids a while longer.
Bringing religion onto the football field is something area football fans are familiar with, from the example set by the coach of the local NFL franchise. But Vanderhall says he doesn’t invoke Allah by name into his pep talks on the gridiron. Yet many of the tenets that drew him to Islam in the first place have found their way into his coaching spiel.
“In coaching, I can just use the moral values taught in Islam,” he says. “There’s a saying in Islam: ‘You’re not a true Muslim until you want for your brother what you want for yourself.’ I use that in coaching, only I substitute ‘true teammate.’ As in: ‘When you want your teammate to score just like you would want to score, you are a true teammate.’ The teachings of Islam build an all-for-one-and-one-for-all attitude. Those are things that I implement into my coaching, teaching them how to be the perfect teammate by sacrificing and giving of yourself.”
Although he founded the Stars as a football team, not a Muslim football team, Vanderhall says it didn’t take long to encounter the sort of anti-Islamic bias that pervades American society.
“Originally, I applied for the Stars to be in a football league in Rockville,” he says. “But the people there told me their league wasn’t compatible with me. I asked what did that mean, we weren’t ‘compatible’? And they didn’t have an answer.”
So Vanderhall, who lives in Montgomery County, took his fledgling program to the tougher DC Youth Football League, where his charges will face seasoned programs like the Steelers. Absent help from above, the Stars’ first year could be a long one.
Amid the slaughter at Lamond-Riggs, Vanderhall’s wife, Yasmine Vanderhall, who serves as the Stars’ only assistant coach, announces she is leaving the sidelines. “I’m going to pray!” she says.
The onfield ugliness just gets uglier as she hits her knees in the end zone. When on defense, the Steelers rush 11 men every play. When Basil Vanderhall calls for an option play, both Stars running backs fail to move with the snap or even to pick up the ball pitched wildly by the quarterback just before he’s smashed into the dirt.
It doesn’t take long before even Vanderhall has seen enough. He doesn’t want his players to get hurt or learn to hate football from their very first taste of the game. After just half an hour of play, and before his wife has returned from her prayers, he asks the referees to call an end to the scrimmage. None of the Stars complain about the coach’s request.
The opening lines of his postgame pep talk, though delivered with warmth, are enough to put the fear of god into the youngsters. “Welcome to the DC League,” he tells his Stars. “You just played the worst team in the league.”—Dave McKenna
Art accompanying story in the printed newspaper is not available in this archive: Photograph by Charles Steck.