Jefferson’s 35-0 win over host Washington-Lee in Arlington last Friday continued what sure looks like the best football season in the high school’s history. But head coach Tim O’Reilly was too distracted to talk about his team immediately after the shutout as players from both schools lined up to shake hands. Seems the feel-good postgame ritual has taken a violent turn this year.
“I’ve had two players punched in the face after games, so I better watch this,” O’Reilly told me. “People get upset when the nerds beat ’em.”
Yes, the nerds. That’s a tag the football team and the rest of the student body at his Alexandria school—formal name Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology—wears with pride. Since converting from a regular neighborhood school to a magnet school in 1985, TJ has become known as a brain factory second to none.
The intellectual honors Jefferson’s kids bring home each year are enough to make the school’s namesake feel like a slacker. Last spring, a quiz-bowl squad from Jefferson won the 2004 National Academic Quiz Tournaments’ High School National Championship, thereby becoming the only school in the history of the competition to win back-to-back titles. The TJ squad took first in the U.S. Department of Energy’s National Science Bowl competition for 2004. At a statewide brains competition last spring called the Future Problem Solving Bowl, Jefferson’s teams placed first. And second. And third. Jefferson kids claimed 28 of the 33 National Merit Scholarships awarded to students in Fairfax County Public Schools last year. (The year before, TJ received 29 of the county’s 31.) TJ is tops in the state’s debate tournaments, and its chess team is the best in the area. One student, Divya Nettimi, was named to USA Today’s 2004 all-American academic team, due in part to all the honors accorded her science project titled “New Insights Into the Kinetics of the Myosin-Actin Molecular Biomotor System.” Washingtonian magazine recently named Jefferson the best public school in the D.C. area.
But for all the readin’, writin’, and ’rithmetic kudos they’ve gotten, Jeffersonians have never shown nearly as much punt, pass, or kick aptitude as has this year’s crew. The win over W-L gave the 2004 Colonials a 7-1 record, tying the all-time school record for victories in a season, with at least two games to play. The lone loss this year came early in the season to Westfield, the gargantuan Chantilly school and defending state football champion. Since that defeat, the nerds have been doing the whupping. Jefferson has outscored the opposition 167-23 over the last five games. Quarterback Matt Wong, the junior who runs O’Reilly’s no-huddle, pass-oriented offense, has thrown for more than 1,600 yards on the season, which place him third among passers in the entire metropolitan area.
Even in the pre-magnet days, when Jefferson took in all the kids from the neighborhood regardless of brainpower, the football program was middling. Student Activities Director Melody Modell says there’s never been so much as a district title for a Jefferson football team. “I just took down all the old sports banners, for championships going back to the ’70s,” she says. “There wasn’t anything for football.” The only player of note to ever wear Jefferson’s colors is Scott Norwood, a Class of ’78 Colonial and former Bills kicker who, rightly or wrongly, is remembered only for missing a field goal in the closing seconds of the 1991 Super Bowl, thereby becoming the Bill Buckner of Buffalo.
The football team hasn’t done much since the nerds took over the campus, either. It was no accident that Washington-Lee scheduled Jefferson as its homecoming date, a role that usually goes to the biggest patsy on the home schedule. For four lopsided quarters, the W-L squad learned the Jefferson kids could score outside of the SATs. (Two weeks earlier, Jefferson spoiled Yorktown’s homecoming with a 28-14 win.)
Modell takes no credit for putting together a squad more successful than its nerdy predecessors.
“Most of it’s just luck of the draw: We’re lucky that we have some big kids this year,” she says. “And the weight room is a big part of this, too. I’m not saying that our kids can lift more weight than other kids, but I think you get one of our kids interested in how to lift weights and teach him about it, he’ll take that and work at it harder than somebody else. I’ve learned in my years working with kids that gifted children tend to be gifted across the board, and that’s the case with this team.”
Unlike other public schools in the region, which generally only take in students from a specific geographic area, Jefferson takes its kids—1,700 or so—from all over Northern Virginia. Only 10 percent of applicants are admitted. So administrators could, technically speaking, make sure to enroll a good football player even if the kid won’t ever come up with, say, any insight into the kinetics of the myosin-actin molecular biomotor system.
But Modell maintains that nobody gets into Jefferson because of his or her athletic prowess.
“There’s no recruiting of athletes,” she says. “For our coaches, the real recruiting challenge is finding kids enrolled in our school who have the time for sports. Our students want to do everything! They all take seven classes, and some of our seniors have four or five AP classes. That’s several hours of homework every night. That doesn’t leave much time.”
And no matter how they perform on Fridays under the lights, the football players have to also bring their A game to the classroom.
“This was a big week at school, but not because there was a football game. It was a big week because it was exam week,” says Nancy Kreloff, who teaches psychology at the school and coaches Jefferson’s powerhouse quiz-bowl teams, while watching the Washington-Lee game from the sidelines. “There were field-hockey players sleeping in the hallway when I got to work this morning, after they’d pulled an all-nighter studying at school, and they had a game today, too. That’s the way it is at Jefferson: There’s no slack for athletes.”
O’Reilly, a weight-training teacher at Jefferson, says he’s always tried to take advantage of the nerds’ brainpower, but book smarts only go so far on the football field. “Conceptually, I can throw so much at these kids, from a playbook standpoint, knowing that they can absorb it,” he says. “That’s different from coaching at another school. But the other side of that is, a lot of my players never even played organized or little-league football before coming to Jefferson, so you still have to be a football coach to get to them.”
After watching his team navigate the handshake line without any fisticuffs, O’Reilly gathered the squad for his postgame critique. Despite the 35-0 score, he told his team that he saw an utter lack of focus against W-L, and that there would be no school record for wins or a district championship unless they started playing a whole lot better. “Guys, we need to re-evaluate what we’re doing,” he said, shaking his head while speaking in the soft tone normally used by the losing coach after such a lopsided contest. “All of us need to reevaluate.”
With his team heading toward the locker room, I asked O’Reilly if, given the importance of academics at Jefferson, it was possible that the rigors of exam week might have affected the nerds’ level of play in the W-L game.
“What exam week?” asked the coach. —Dave McKenna