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Black Men Can’t Kick?

Stephen McCalla’s first-quarter extra point Saturday proved to be the margin of victory in H.D. Woodson’s 15-14 playoff game with Roosevelt. His Warriors will now play for the city title against defending champ Dunbar on Thanksgiving Day.

But even before he booted his team into the Turkey Bowl, McCalla was all but assured the place-kicker’s spot on any all-star team for the D.C. Interscholastic Athletic Association (DCIAA), the city’s public-school league. For all intents, McCalla is the only kicker in the league.

The talent pool in the city’s public schools is hardly shallow. DCIAA sends kids on to play for major college football programs all over the country. To name just two: Woodson alum Byron Leftwich, currently the Marshall University quarterback, is among the top QBs in the nation, and Anacostia’s Cato June now stars at Michigan as a safety.

But D.C. doesn’t export kickers. For whatever reason, the kicking game is all but ignored downtown.

The big kick in the playoff game brought McCalla to 13 extra points on the year. Compared with figures at suburban schools, that’s hardly a hall-of-fame stat—at Robinson High, a standout team in Fairfax County, 43 points after touchdowns (PATs) have been kicked so far this season. But by D.C. standards, he’s George Blanda: The other squads in the 10-team DCIAA notched only 10 PATs—combined—all year. Five teams, including the vanquished Roosevelt, didn’t register even a single PAT this season.

“You can’t find anybody who can kick anymore,” says Willie Stewart, the dean of DCIAA football coaches, who spent more than 20 years at Anacostia High, one of the squads that went kickerless this year. “I haven’t had a [place] kicker for years. I’m not against kickers: I try to find one every year. But during spring practice, I watch one guy kick right and then another guy kick left and then another guy just squib the ball. The best guy makes one out of 10 kicks, so I end up saying, ‘OK, we’re gonna go for two this year.’”

Stewart says that fulfilling the kickoff and punting duties is equally problematic.

“I just grab somebody and ask if he can just get the ball up in the air,” he says. “That way we can at least hope that maybe it’ll catch some wind. You take what you can get with kicking.”

The lengths that Woodson went to to procure McCalla’s services show just how difficult the search for a good leg is. Head coach Gregory Fuller, now in his third year at the school, had never had a kicker before this season. But the Woodson staff went on a star search this summer to end that drought. The quest ended when they heard that a soccer player with a pretty big leg was enrolled at the Northeast school. McCalla, a Jamaican-born senior, had never even played football and had no intention of going out for the team his final year in high school—before an assistant coach knocked on the door of his home.

“Coach Wayne [Johnson] came to my house to ask me to play football,” McCalla, in his native patois, tells me. “So I played.”

Stewart, a D.C. native who played ball at Dunbar in the ’60s, blames the dearth of kickers on the relative lack of interest in soccer at most city schools: Many DCIAA member schools don’t have soccer programs, and Anacostia is among the soccer-free institutions.

“The high schools used to kick extra points when I played,” says Stewart. “But that was when all the kickers were conventional, straight-on kickers. When everybody went from conventional to soccer-style kicking in football, the schools without soccer programs stopped getting kickers.” However, the football team from Eastern High School, which does have a soccer program, was one of the squads that didn’t register an extra point all year.

Undeniably, there is a racial component to the state of kicking. The shortage of legs found in D.C., where essentially all the players are black, trickles up to higher levels of football.

Historically black colleges, for example, can’t find kickers, either. Howard University recruited Jason Walker as a punter, but the senior was forced into place-kicking duties when nobody else could do the job. And Walker’s having a tough time of it: He’s converted only five of 13 PAT attempts and just one field goal all year. That’s not good. The suckage is rampant around Howard’s league, too. Seven of the 10 teams in the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference have scored five or fewer field goals all year, and one school—Norfolk State—hasn’t kicked any.

Howard’s special teams’ deficiencies hurt last weekend: The Bisons scored three TDs early against conference rival Bethune-Cookman, but Walker missed every PAT attempt. Buoyed by the opponent’s missed opportunities, Bethune-Cookman stormed back to win 29-18.

Danny Mathis, Bethune-Cookman’s kicker, made his first 29 PATs this season without a miss. He’s a white guy.

And Brian Morgan, a freshman at Grambling State, the traditional powerhouse of black college football, now leads the NCAA in field goals per game. He’s a white guy.

At the pro level, there is some history with black place-kickers. In 1960, Gene Mingo, playing for the Denver Broncos of the old AFL, scored the first points in Mile High Stadium history with a field goal, and Mingo later went on to break Lou Groza’s pro record for field goals in a season. But in the recent history of the NFL, there have been only two black place-kickers of note, and neither—Clemson alumni Obed Ariri and Donald Igwebuike, both Nigerians—was American.

Perhaps McCalla’s role in Woodson’s single-point triumph will get D.C. prep teams more involved in promoting place-kicking.

“The coaches told me I was the difference today,” McCalla says. It’s a half-hour after the game, and he’s still wearing his jersey and a huge smile. Not the smile of a pioneer. The smile of a winner. —Dave McKenna