The first football season at Stuart-Hobson Middle School started off bad and ended early.
It ended on Monday, to be specific. Kip Holland, Stuart-Hobson’s first and only coach, called the offices of the D.C. Interscholastic Athletic Association to announce that his team would be forfeiting the three games remaining on its schedule. League rules require that at least 18 players be dressed out for each game. Suspensions and defections had left him short for a game against Sousa Middle School last week. Three kids missed that game after being yanked off the team by their parents for academic reasons following last week’s citywide parent-teacher conferences.
A variety of one-off excuses led to other no-shows. One player cussed out an administrator in the lunchroom and was banished by the school. Another was deactivated by Holland for cussing at practice. Still another didn’t show up because he had to get a haircut.
If the suspended players and the kid with the new coif were willing and able to suit up for future games, Stuart-Hobson might have a quorum. But Holland concluded that pulling the plug now would be the humane thing to do for his kids.
“In my worst-case scenario, I could never imagine things going so wrong,” says Holland of his rookie season in scholastic football coaching.
Holland’s team didn’t win either of the two games played before the season was canceled. He’s not sure how many points the Stuart-Hobson defense gave up. “But I know it was a lot,” he says.
He is certain how many his squad scored, however. None.
To say nothing went right for Holland and his team might be an exaggeration. But not much of one.
“Our cheerleaders refused to show up for the games,” says Holland.
Holland, 39, had played ball in his youth at Paint Branch High School in Burtonsville, Md., and dabbled in boys club coaching in New Jersey for a few seasons before returning to the D.C. area in 2005. He decided last year that he wanted to make coaching his full-time profession. He read every how-to book on football coaching he could find and attended every free coaching clinic in the region. He enrolled at UDC and hopes to get a physical education degree. He heard through local football circles that the middle schools would be the best place for an entry-level coaching position.
All of the head-coaching jobs at schools with existing programs had been filled by the time he started his own job search, so he began cold-calling principals at places that didn’t field a football team. The administration of Stuart-Hobson, which is located in Northeast D.C. a few blocks from Union Station and has an enrollment of about 400 kids in fifth through eighth grades, gave him the green light.
The school’s support for the program, Holland says, ceased after he got that go-ahead.
Take, for example, his first attempt at recruiting. Holland organized an informational meeting at Stuart-Hobson for prospective football players and their parents at the end of the last school year.
Fifteen prospects and/or their parents had told Holland they’d attend. Only three people showed up, not counting the student who happened to be on campus with her mother for nonfootball reasons but wandered over to the display table Holland had set up at the school’s entrance.
“That team’s gonna suck!” she said out loud, before realizing the coach was sitting next to the display.
Holland eventually rounded up 25 kids willing to give football and the new coach a chance. Only a handful had ever played on a team before. To help teach them the game, Holland, who was working at a health club over the summer, had gotten verbal agreements from eight co-workers and friends to serve as assistants for the new team.
None of those alleged assistants showed up for the first workout—or ever. He eventually talked some players’ parents and friends of friends into helping out when they could. But many afternoons, Holland found himself the lone adult in charge of a couple of dozen pubescents.
Then there was Stuart-Hobson’s practice field, which wasn’t even a field. The campus doesn’t have any grass space for students to use. Other than the Heineken bottles scattered all over the blacktop surrounding the school’s main building, there really isn’t anything green.
Holland assumed after taking the job, for which he wasn’t paid a dime, that he’d hold practices at nearby Ludlow-Taylor Elementary School, which has the only grass field within reasonable walking distance of Stuart-Hobson.
The elementary school’s administration, however, wouldn’t have it.
“We were run off by the principal when we went to Ludlow-Taylor,” says Holland. “I told him my kids were in sneakers, but he said we’d ruin the grass and kicked us off.” (Donald Presswood, principal of Ludlow-Taylor, did not return messages left at his office.)
Holland couldn’t ever count on enough parents or assistant coaches to help him transport kids to greener pastures. So Stuart-Hobson’s squad regularly practiced on the blacktop. The very tall chain link fence that surrounds it gives the space all the charm of a juvenile detention center.
“You can’t teach kids how to play football like that,” he says. “You can’t teach them to tackle if they can’t tackle. And you can’t tackle on pavement.”
Before the season opener against P.R. Harris Educational Center, Holland says, he told his team that they would win that game, then would go on to an undefeated season that would “shock the world.”
He didn’t believe either would happen. He just wanted the first pep talk most of his kids ever heard to be a good one.
That plan didn’t work. Come game time, the only guy shocked by Stuart-Hobson’s performance was the coach, and only because of his players’ haplessness.
Holland had a friend videotape the Harris game. The camera didn’t capture anything worth replaying for his team, however. All Holland learned from watching was that the football adage “you practice like you play” holds true: There wasn’t any tackling taking place on Stuart-Hobson’s side of the ball.
He says he turned off the tape after seeing two of his defenders talking to each other, oblivious to the on-field action until a Harris running back runs by them. At the time, the game was still in the first quarter.
The scoreboard operator mercifully stopped posting the score by the second half. In the team’s next game, against perennial power Hart Middle School, the scorekeeping ended even earlier.
Against Sousa and the remaining opponents on Stuart-Hobson’s 2007 schedule, the score will be easy to tabulate: 1–0, which is how all football forfeits go into the books.
Hours after officially calling off the season, Holland insists he’ll coach again, even if it means returning to Stuart-Hobson.
“I decided I want to be a coach because I know how important coaches are to kids,” he says. “This year was horrible. But I can’t go out like this. At one coaching clinic everybody was asked to raise their hand if they remember their 10th-grade science teacher. Nobody did. Then he asked if we remember our varsity football coach, and everybody raised their hand. I still want to be that guy.”