There’s a pep rally for Coach Peppy’s football team at MacFarland Middle School scheduled for this Friday. Nobody at the school, which is located off Georgia Avenue in Petworth, can remember the last time such an assembly was held.
But this year’s bunch of Crusaders surely earned the attention.
They’ll play later Friday afternoon for the D.C. middle-school championship. MacFarland, which was built in 1923 and is the city’s oldest middle school, goes into the title game undefeated. Last week’s 14-0 win over Harris Middle School in the semifinals was the team’s seventh straight shutout in seven games. Officials with DCIAA, the governing body for schoolboy athletics in the city, have told MacFarland that no other team has ever gone so long without giving up a point.
“The kids have really done a great job this year,” says Charles Pointer—Coach Peppy to the players.
The coach has done a darn good job, too. It’s his first year at MacFarland.
There wasn’t much reason for pep rallies at the school before Coach Peppy arrived. Four years ago, the team had to forfeit every game when it was learned that the quarterback didn’t even attend MacFarland. The football forfeitures came during a horrible stretch for the school that included repeated court-ordered closures because of shoddy roofing and fire-code violations, news stories about violent crimes committed by and against MacFarland students, racial strife between Hispanic students and black administrators, reports of underperforming students and teachers, and a revolving door in the administrative offices that saw nine principals come and go in a two-year span.
“Things were bad when I got here,” says Antonia Peters, now in her fourth year as MacFarland’s principal. Unlike her predecessors, Peters stuck around to see the school rebound. And now, she says, test scores are up, race relations are improved, the roof’s not leaking, and school spirit is as high as it’s ever been. The football team’s reversal of fortune has contributed to the mood swing.
Last season, the Crusaders won just one game and were routinely trounced. Harris Middle School, the team MacFarland defeated in the semis, crushed the Crusaders, 30-0, a year ago. But everything changed this past spring, when Pointer knocked on Peters’ door and asked for a chance to coach her football team. A 17-year veteran of the D.C. Public Schools’ facilities department—he’s now supervisor of the painting and plastering unit—Pointer, who lives in Fort Washington, had served as an offensive coach for teams in Prince George’s County and worked with various boys’ club squads. But he’d never been a head coach or even an assistant in D.C. before. He knew all about MacFarland’s reputation as a sorry football school before he went knocking.
“I knew I had a system that could be successful at any level,” he says. “I just wanted a chance to run a team, to show I could make it work.”
And Peters gave him that chance, though she admits she almost told Coach Peppy to take a hike.
“This guy just walked up to me and asked right away if I would consider making him the coach, because he wanted to make a difference,” Peters recalls. “My immediate response was, ‘Sir, I don’t know you at all. Do you have references? Do you have a resume? You’re not trying to set me up, are you?’ But he just said, ‘I know I can coach.’ I got this feeling about him, his dedication. So I said I’d give him a chance for one year, and he promised me he wouldn’t embarrass me.”
Pointer’s first move was to bring in older brother William Pointer, who also works for the schools’ facilities department, as defensive coordinator. The two played ball together at Oxon Hill High School in the mid-’80s, and over the years have coached on opposite sides of the ball at the boys’ club level.
“Peppy has always told me he had an offensive system that would beat my defense, and I’ve told him my defense could stop his offense,” says William Pointer. “We’ve always been competitive, and that’s made us work harder, watching film and working on coming up with systems to beat each other. But in our dreams, we always wanted to work together at a school team, and MacFarland gave us the first opportunity to do that.”
The going wasn’t easy at first. About three dozen kids came out for the team this summer for the first week of practice. But the MacFarland bunch wasn’t used to the sort of discipline the Pointer brothers were expecting.
“In years past, I think the best kids could just show up for games after skipping practice, and the coaches would still play them,” says Coach Peppy. “But I told them what was expected—no practice, no play; no exceptions—and when they saw that I meant it, not everybody wanted to stick around.”
Soon enough, the Crusaders’ roster had diminished to 20 players. Nine players from last year’s squad who had been projected as starters walked rather than put up with Coach Peppy’s rules, which include no cussing and no muddy cleats on the team bus. He’s been working pretty much seven days a week since August, two or three hours a day of teaching the team the Wing T misdirection offense, plus film-watching sessions on his own when he gets home. He’s not in it for the money—the coaching budget for the entire staff is $1,100 for the year—but coaches never are. The rewards come in the relationship a coach builds with his team.
Coach Peppy says he’s not surprised by how well the team has performed: “Not to be cocky, but I knew my system would work if I got a chance, and these kids and my brother and everybody in the program has worked really hard,” he says. But he never expected the job to take such an emotional toll. Learning about his players’ lives away from the field has been the toughest part of his first year of inner-city coaching.
“These kids are raising themselves,” he says. “The parents in most cases don’t even come to the games, which I don’t understand at all. And you get so involved, and you learn the kids aren’t getting a fair shake, and that eats me up. As a coach, you get so close to the kids, and you want to do everything you can for them. I’d love to take them all in, but that’s not a possibility. I can’t afford that. Nobody can afford that. I can only do something for them during the time when they’re with me….I don’t want to sound like a complainer or like I’m quitting on the kids, because that’s the last thing I’d ever want to do. But, well, a lot of times it’s too much to bear. I really need a break, to take a season off or give up coaching.”
In any case, Coach Peppy’s got at least one more game: the championship, against two-time defending champs Hart Middle School. Principal Peters went to the semifinal, which was played in the rain and mud at Dunbar. She wore Army fatigues and strolled the sidelines from start to finish. She says she went more to show school spirit than for any other reason. But what she saw from these kids and their coach up close left her in awe, and not just because they won handily. When Peters went to work the next morning, she let her entire staff in on what she’d witnessed.
“You have to understand, a lot of these boys on the football team are the same boys that I hear about from my teachers, as causing trouble and having learning problems,” she says. “In that game, I saw another side. So I got on the P.A. to talk to my teachers, and I said, ‘I saw something last night that I’m not hearing from you about these kids. The kids listened. They took directions. They were excited. They executed. And they succeeded because of all that.’ It really is a special thing, this relationship between the coach and his players. And I think that maybe we should look at this a lot closer, and see what we can take.”
So should we all: The game is 3:30 p.m. at Spingarn.—Dave McKenna