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When John Matthews applied to be the head football coach at Spingarn at the end of the last school year, all his friends told him only a crazy man would want that job. He took it anyway.

“Now I’m starting to agree with them,” Matthews says.

The craziness of Matthews’ task started to become clear as soon as he got the gig. Spingarn has a legendary basketball program—it’s the only public school in the country to have two alumni on the NBA’s all-time team, Elgin Baylor and Dave Bing.

Its football fortunes, however, have been overwhelmingly dismal, particularly of late. Matthews taught shoe repair at Spingarn last year, so he was aware that he was inheriting a team that went winless, and scored only 12 points, in D.C. Interscholastic Athletic Association (DCIAA) East games in 2002. That’s why the head coaching job came open in the first place.

Even so, the uniforms, fields, and equipment left over from the previous coaching regime were in far worse condition than he’d expected. One of the first chores Matthews assigned to his newly formed staff was to use machetes and gardening equipment to help him cut the blocking sled out of the weeds and mud that had captured it during years of disuse.

“The thing was so far embedded in the ground I couldn’t believe it,” he says. “I see that, and I’m like, They never used the seven-man sled at this school before? They got a problem! I mean, wait a minute, I got a problem!”

But Matthews’ real problems came when he called his squad’s first practice. Matthews, who grew up near Eastern Market and graduated from Phelps, had never coached high-school varsity before, and he admits that as the big day approached he got excited about working with the players to build a program. His excitement hadn’t yet trickled down to the Spingarn student body.

Five kids showed up to play.

Even though he didn’t have enough players to use the seven-man sled he’d just liberated, Matthews decided he wasn’t going to be denied his inaugural workout as a head coach.

“I told myself that I’m going to bring this thing from rags to riches. I got the rags,” Matthews says. “But I was going to have my first practice. I ran the five kids through our drills just like I had 25 kids.”

Though better known for its basketball progeny, the DCIAA has produced its share of NFL players. Raiders receiver Jerry Porter, who caught a touchdown in last year’s Super Bowl, is from Coolidge, Byron Leftwich, Jacksonville’s star rookie quarterback, is an H.D. Woodson graduate, and Colts defensive back and fellow rookie Cato June went to Anacostia. But even with those pro role models, getting students interested in playing football is becoming harder and harder, say DCIAA coaches and administrators.

“Kids aren’t interested in participating in athletics the way they used to,” says Adrian Dixon, a 1960 graduate of Roosevelt, who has been a coach and/or athletic director at Coolidge for 30 years. “They’ve got so many other choices now, so as administrators, all we can do is get word out about our programs and hope they come out.”

Reginald Burke, in his first year as principal at Spingarn, says that at his school financial concerns conspire to keep kids who would otherwise play ball away from extracurricular activities.

“For a lot of kids here, working isn’t an option,” says Burke. “It’s an economic necessity.”

Matthews had other factors working against him. Spingarn is the smallest school in the league, with enrollment of only about 550. What’s more, the few players that came out for Spingarn’s team in August told him that members of last year’s squad were telling teammates not to play for Matthews to show loyalty to their former coach. (Matthews says the two best underclassmen on last year’s team transferred out of Spingarn and are now playing for other DCIAA schools.)

DCIAA rules state that no school can field a team with fewer than 18 eligible players on the roster. Matthews began working the phones and chasing every lead he could get from Spingarn administrators, faculty, parents, and students. And when Principal Burke told Matthews about a freshman-orientation session scheduled at Spingarn, he showed up.

“I sat outside the door at that freshman orientation and made a pitch about my program to every mother of every boy who looked anything like he might be able to play football,” Matthews says.

In a typical high-school football program, incoming ninth- and 10th-graders can try out for freshman or junior-varsity programs. At Spingarn, slots on the varsity were offered to takers of any age. But despite the efforts and open enrollment policy, Matthews didn’t overcome the student body’s apathy or antipathy in time for the scheduled season opener with Coolidge on Sept. 5. So the record book shows that Matthews lost his first game as head coach to Coolidge, 1-0—the official forfeit score in football. Spingarn was also forced to forfeit its second game, against Cardozo, because of a lack of players.

But, eventually, Matthews got his quorum.

“I was in the gym when we brought a group of the new kids in to give them their uniforms,” says Spingarn’s athletic director, Bruce Williams. “Most of them had never played football before except for in the street or sandlot. They didn’t even know how to put the equipment on, where the snaps and straps were supposed to go. But we got a team.”

And Friday, Oct. 3, Matthews finally got around to his real coaching debut. He brought 22 kids, including 13 freshmen or sophomores, up to visit Wilson, a school with an enrollment three times as big and a football program that has 80 kids. There were almost as many cheerleaders on the Wilson sideline as there were players on Spingarn’s.

David and Goliath made for a good little biblical yarn, but the Spingarn-Wilson game, despite some plot similarities, had a more realistic feel. Wilson beat the crap out of its younger, smaller, slower foe from the opening series. By halftime, the score was 34-0. After Wilson returned the opening kickoff of the second half for a touchdown, kicker David Rosenbaum was, because of several penalties, forced to attempt an extra point from 62 yards out. He made the kick. Matthews’ reaction to what might well be the longest PAT in football history?

“I saw that, I just said to my coaches, ‘We got to get us a kicker!’” he says. “We don’t even have one at Spingarn. But someday.”

Following Rosenbaum’s kick, the scorekeeper was given orders to keep the play clock moving, and Wilson coach Horace Fleming put his starters on the bench. The game ended 41-0.

When the gun sounded, Matthews says he was mostly just proud of his kids for showing up. DCIAA officials had told him that if Spingarn hadn’t fielded a team for the Wilson game, its whole season would have been canceled. And, he adds, he’ll always be happier to play a game and lose by 41 points than to lose 1-0 in the manner that Spingarn fell to Coolidge and Cardozo.

“I’ve coached for one game, and my record is 0-3,” he says with a chuckle. “How many coaches can say that?” —Dave McKenna