For the saddest of reasons, Bobby Brown wanted to play football at a different high school for his senior year. Because of his talents and some unique eligibility rules governing D.C. athletics, he could pick any team in the city.
So he chose Dunbar. That was both the most—and least—obvious choice.
For the past two seasons, Brown was the quarterback for Anacostia. But Brown never attended class there. He’s a student at the School Without Walls, where he plays basketball and baseball for the Penguins. But the brainy magnet school lacks more than walls; it can also be called the School Without a Football Team. Under D.C. Interscholastic Athletic Association (DCIAA) code, students enrolled in schools that don’t have teams in a particular sport are eligible to try out at any public school that does. Brown says his original loyalties were to Anacostia, because that school was closest to his father’s home.
Anacostia didn’t post a winning record during Brown’s tenure as QB, but his performance was good enough to attract requests for his services from several NCAA programs after his junior season, and he describes his time with the team as a great experience. He would have finished his schoolboy career there, if only his best friend, Devin Fowlkes, had been there to finish it with him.
But Fowlkes, a 16-year-old star fullback for Anacostia, died on Oct. 30, after being shot at the school while waiting for football practice. Brown was on his way to the campus when he got a cell-phone call telling him practice was canceled, and that his buddy had been shot. The shooter, a 15-year-old fellow student, said it was an accident and was sentenced to incarceration in a juvenile-detention facility until he reaches 21.
Brown says that, before his junior season ended, he’d decided his playing days at Anacostia were done.
“It wasn’t in me to stay at Anacostia after my friend was shot,” says Brown. “Just walking in the locker room, I couldn’t take that. That same spot where he got killed, we’d go there sometimes just to relax. I was always standing right there. I couldn’t go back.”
But he wasn’t ready to hang up his cleats. Fowlkes, says Brown, would be let down if he gave up the game that brought them together. So he began looking at other schools that could use a quarterback.
Dunbar came to mind first, Brown says.
And why not? Dunbar is a football powerhouse. For years, the school has been feeding talent to the NCAA. Asked to come up with a list of players who once wore the red and black who are now playing college ball, coach Craig Jefferies, architect of the Dunbar dynasty for the past eight years, gives up after dropping 18 names. Two of his products are in the NFL—James Lynch of the Cincinnati Bengals and Montique Sharpe of the Kansas City Chiefs. And Dunbar’s record under Jefferies makes the New York Yankees seem like losers. The school has played in the city championship six years in a row and won five times.
The coach doesn’t expect to see Dunbar’s winning skein end this season, either.
“We’re looking as strong or stronger than we have in the past,” says Jefferies.
Four of Dunbar’s offensive linemen are returning for their third year as starters. It’s also quite possibly the biggest line ever assembled by a local high school, anchored by 6-foot-7, 340-pound tackle Kevin Wiggins. Wide receiver James McDonald and linebacker Brandon Gilbeaux are recruiter magnets, also.
“I think Bobby wanted a championship,” says Reesie Morgan, quarterbacks coach at Anacostia, with a laugh, when asked about Brown’s transfer.
Jefferies has installed a new tutoring program, subsidized by the NFL, to help make the school even more attractive to prospective players and their families. His players aren’t allowed to lift weights until they’ve seen the tutor. And they can’t practice if they haven’t lifted weights. And they can’t play if they haven’t practiced.
There was a time when Dunbar students got far more renown for their performance in the classroom than on the gridiron. Founded in the mid-1890s as the M Street School, it’s recognized as the first public high school for blacks ever built in the United States. During segregation, it was where the brainy black kids went, and Dunbar once produced more black Ph.D.s than any other American high school. According to The Dunbar Story, a 1965 book by Mary Gibson Hundley, Dunbar could claim among its alumni the first black West Point and U.S. Naval Academy graduates, the first black federal judge, the first black general, and the first black Cabinet member.
But there’s one thing Dunbar has never had.
“There’s never been a white quarterback in the history of the school,” says Jefferies.
But Brown, who is white, says wanting to play for Dunbar had nothing to do with a desire to break down racial barriers. The coaching staff and organization of the program were the most impressive in the city, he says. Besides, he was the only white guy playing for Anacostia during his years there, so it was nothing new for him.
But Brown does seem to get a kick out of having his race pointed out to him by teammates—or reporters.
“I know about being the first,” Brown says. “People told me that. I know people think it’s different for me, but as long as I play right, my color doesn’t matter. The other day, a teammate said to me, ‘I even forget that you’re white!’ and we laughed about it. But to tell you the truth, nobody really thinks about it much on the field. Color doesn’t matter when you’re trying to win.”
Jersey numbers don’t matter much, either. Last week, before the first outdoor practice of the year, Brown asked Jefferies for No. 1, the same jersey he wore at Anacostia. He didn’t look happy when Jefferies told him that number had already been assigned. But such sulking doesn’t wash at Dunbar.
“Take this one,” said the coach, throwing a No. 11 shirt across the equipment room to Brown. “That’s the best I can do. Look at it like it’s two No. 1s. Now let’s go.”
But Brown isn’t the only applicant for the quarterback job at Dunbar, nor the only football player to take advantage of the rare sort of free agency available to D.C. athletes. Nate Bussey, a 10th-grader, also would like the QB gig. And like Brown, Bussey had a lot of schools to choose from. Bussey lives off Minnesota Avenue NE, within the H.D. Woodson boundaries. But D.C. students have the option of attending any public high school that will accept them. So after Bussey quarterbacked Hines Junior High School to a city title last season, he says, coaches from almost every school in town asked him to play for them. Bussey says Dunbar got the nod because he’s gone to every DCIAA championship game—the annual Turkey Bowl held each Thanksgiving.
“I know all about the Dunbar tradition,” says Bussey, who will also be a student there. “I want to be part of it.”
Bussey, who committed to Dunbar before Brown, got a pledge from Jefferies that he’d get a chance to crack the starting lineup his sophomore season. And he got the No. 1 jersey.
And all that, apparently, didn’t sit well with Brown. After the first week of practice, in which he and Bussey shared snaps with the first team, Brown told Jefferies that he was leaving the team and was looking for a different school to play at for his senior season.
“I’m surprised, and disappointed,” Jefferies said shortly after getting the news that Brown had walked. “I’m not going to make any guarantees to a player, but I think Bobby would have had a big season and a championship.”
As of press time, and with Dunbar’s regular season less than two weeks away, Brown had yet to select a new team.—Dave McKenna