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For almost three decades, the D.C. Coaches Association’s East-West All-Star game has given the best and the biggest football players from the city’s public schools one last chance to compete for college scholarships or just show off for friends and family. But something was definitely missing when the class of ’96 assembled early Friday evening at Eastern High School for this year’s rendition.

Pants.

Believe it or not, the 28th annual confab of gridiron talent from the city’s beleaguered public schools (a confederation now known as the D.C. Interscholastic Athletic Association or DCIAA) was delayed well over an hour because organizers had failed to procure uniform pants for the players. Unfortunately, this kind of organizational dishevelment has become increasingly common in D.C. football.

It’s been a long time since DCIAA programs have been on a par with their counterparts from the private leagues or the suburbs. Other sports (mainly basketball—or worse still, the streets) have stolen kids away from football. And proper funding and organization has been a perpetual problem. Spingarn Senior High School, which has produced such b-ball legends as Dave Bing, Earl Jones, Michael Graham, and Sherman Douglas, had to forfeit football games a few years back because it didn’t have proper equipment for all its players. But for virtually every school in the league, it’s the lack of able-bodied students willing to put on uniforms that’s the biggest problem.

“Schools in the suburbs get their kids in August and start practicing,” shrugged Spingarn athletic director Bruce Williams before the all-star game. “But most of our kids are still working then, and we can’t tell them to quit their jobs or kick them off the team, like coaches could in the old days. We have to take them after school starts, or whenever we can get them.”

In hopes of putting some muscle back into local high-school football, the D.C. school board provided funding for its middle schools to field teams four years ago. But according to Williams, that effort at building a farm system will soon be canceled for the most tired of reasons.

“It’s finances,” he said. “We’re just now starting to see more kids coming into the football programs, and I think that’s a result of the [junior high programs]. But it looks like that’s not going to go on much longer. When there’s a budget crunch, the first thing they’ll cut is sports.”

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Colleges across the U.S. continue to mine D.C.’s public schools for basketball talent, and even from the city’s private institutions, which have the luxury of recruiting kids from the public ranks. But not too many DCIAA football players go on to play in the NCAA these days. One dad in the stands at Eastern complained bitterly before the game that DCIAA football coaches haven’t done nearly enough to secure their athletes a place to play after high school.

“My feeling is that if the kids put in three or four years for your team, then the least they deserve is for a coach to put a little work in to try to get them a scholarship, try to get them something,” railed the parent, whose children attend Eastern. “But that’s not being done.

“I know about the budget cuts and all that, but the athletes are still here! The talent is here! I don’t know if it’s because morale in the city schools is so low or because so many of these coaches just don’t like their jobs or what, but it’s clear that not enough is being done to get these kids scholarships. And that pisses me off. It really does.”

Even with the problems, college recruiters do manage to find some players from DCIAA teams—mostly the biggest ones. Terry Dixon, a 6-foot-3-inch, 312-pound, two-way lineman from Anacostia, was offered and accepted a free ride from Wisconsin. And fellow Anacostian Jeron Chaney, an extremely tall, extremely smooth wideout, is one of the most sought-after receivers in the region, according to scouts at Eastern. Going into Friday’s contest, Chaney hadn’t yet signed with anybody.

“He’s one of those kids that could go anywhere he wanted,” said one scout on the sidelines after watching Chaney pull in a touchdown pass Friday. “We all hear Miami is tops on his list. But everybody’s waiting on his test scores. There are a lot of kids in tonight’s game in a similar situation, and that is a huge issue with recruiting in D.C.”

Junior colleges, which aren’t hamstrung by NCAA standards, have benefited from the stringent admissions requirements that all Division I schools have instituted in recent years. When the final gun went off Friday night (with the West winning 24-6), the coaching staff from Montgomery College began working the Eastern High field like Hare Krishnas at an airport.

“We hope to get a lot of our players from tonight’s game,” said Phil Martin, head coach for Montgomery College, which over the past several years has had one of the most successful JC programs in the country.

One of the first players Martin approached was Usoro Usoro, a splendidly named receiver from Roosevelt who was named most valuable player of the losing East squad.

“I just want a scholarship. I just want to play college ball,” said Usoro after handing off the MVP trophy to his mother. “Anywhere. Anywhere!” According to Martin and other scouts at the game, Usoro’s wish might well be granted.

Jamaal Johnson, a recent graduate from Wilson and a receiver for the West team, wasn’t offered so much as a feeler from any college before or immediately after Friday’s game. Since he weighs but 148 pounds and has only average speed, Johnson’s playing days are over.

“For football, I’m just a small guy,” Johnson shrugged while loitering on the field.

But luckily for small guys, high-school football can be more than merely a stepping stone to college ball. All the other all-stars were already in the locker rooms when Johnson was joined by a nephew, who ran from the stands and tugged at his uncle’s No. 85 jersey wearing a magnificent smile. To them, the city’s dubious football standing, and even the no-pants snafu, were absolutely irrelevant. It was nearly midnight when Johnson began his final jog across a football field in uniform, followed closely by his beaming nephew.

—Dave McKenna