Turf Dough: The city?s investment in Coolidge?s football stadium has Principal Burton smiling.
Turf Dough: The city?s investment in Coolidge?s football stadium has Principal Burton smiling. Credit: Charles Steck

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Last Friday, Coolidge and Woodson played a football game. Heck if it didn’t seem like so much more.

“A lot of people wanted to come out and be a part of this,” said Adrian Dixon, a longtime coach and athletic director at Coolidge.

And they did come out. In recent years, a typical nondivisional matchup in the D.C. Interscholastic Athletic Association might be played in the afternoon in front of a cozy crowd of friends and family. But this game drew fans by the thousands. Pretty much all the bleacher space between the 5-yard lines in Coolidge’s big stadium was filled. The top urban radio station in the market, WPGC-FM, broadcast live from the game, and a local TV news crew taped

the action.

Coolidge came into the game undefeated; perennial city title contender Woodson was winless. Yet the crowded house and media presence had little to do with winning or losing streaks.

No, most folks were on hand because this was the first night game in the history of Coolidge, which opened in the Takoma neighborhood in 1940.

The new lights shone quite brightly on the Colts’ new, incredibly orange uniforms, whose $16,000 tab was, like the light bills, picked up by the city. Tax dollars also went for Coolidge’s new helmets, complete with a new horseshoe logo. The hosts wore new white-and-orange Nike cleats, too.

Then there was the fact that this was also the first game Coolidge ever played on its new artificial-turf home field, which had been installed over the summer (Cheap Seats, “Artificial Improvement,” 8/24), adorned with a huge Colts logo at midfield.

There was also the unveiling of a new high-tech digital scoreboard with an old-school touch: “Home of the Colts” had been painted on it. The cement steps all over the stadium had been painted before the season, too.

And, for the first time, the stadium had a press box, which came complete with a new public-address system. All of it from city coffers.

None of the taxpayers on hand were complaining.

“Look around,” said Terry Goings, Coolidge class of 1977, waving an arm over what everybody agreed was the largest early-season crowd the stadium had ever held.

“There are so many alumni at this game and so many teachers at the game, and our kids see all these people coming out for them. These are kids that have suffered so long in our schools, with buildings with all sorts of holes in the walls. Now, they’ve got this, they’ve got something beautiful. I went to Coolidge myself, I’ve had a daughter graduate here, and I’ve got a son in 11th grade here now: This energy is new. Tonight is a huge night for Coolidge.”

But not just Coolidge: Even the visitors were caught up in the mood. Maurice Hughes, a 1977 Woodson grad, was in the stands rooting for the Warriors but ended up feeling good for the kids from the rival school, too—and for his entire hometown.

“This is the way they do it in Texas: Get the whole town out, Friday night under the lights,” said Hughes. “This lets the kids know you care about them. It’s a great night.”

PA announcer Levae Ford, from up in the new press box, was clearly caught up in the mood. He made the already big-league ambience feel even bigger league by calling out many of the home team’s players using nicknames that had been bestowed by teammates—among them Michael “Old Man Face” Francis and defensive lineman Omar “Mister Yes Sir” Omar.

From a football standpoint, all the pick-me-ups couldn’t have come at a better time for Coolidge. Last year’s team would have been favored to win a city championship had six blue-chip college recruits, led by all-American Marvin Austin, not bolted with an assistant coach for crosstown Ballou. Instead, Coolidge won just three games and watched Austin lead Ballou to the Turkey Bowl and a title.

“It was depressing to see all the kids we’d groomed since ninth grade go on to Ballou,” said Goings, who is heavily involved in the Coolidge alumni association. “I’m not passing judgment, but we feel Ballou stole our championship.”

For the kids at Coolidge, however, the construction of the new home field and all its accouterments trumped whatever hangover remained from last season. Coolidge’s enrollment is about 1,000; according to Dixon, more than 100 kids tried out for junior varsity and varsity teams this year.

Alas, the home team didn’t treat its fans to a win on perhaps the most momentous night in the history of Coolidge football. Woodson scored a go-ahead touchdown with two minutes left in the fourth quarter, and Coolidge’s last drive stalled at midfield.

Final score: Woodson 22, Coolidge 14.

Before leaving the field, Coolidge Head Coach Jason Lane was dwel­ling on his first loss of the season and wasn’t ready to put the event into any larger or more positive context.

“I don’t know if the kids got caught up in all this. We just made a couple mistakes, and that cost us,” Lane said. “That’s

what happened.”

But the football team’s loss did nothing to change L. Nelson Burton’s view about what took place this night. He’s been the principal at Coolidge for three years, and he sees the refurbished stadium as only the most visible symbol of a wave of good things taking place at his school, which is not only his workplace but his alma mater (class of ’90).

Burton, who still lives in the neighborhood, even links a recent boom in Advanced Placement calculus enrollment at Coolidge to the construction of the new field, and the addition of the new lights, the new press box, etc.

“A lot of people,” said Burton, “made a big deal that this is money being spent on athletics: ‘Where’s the money for academics?’ they said. Well, I say to these people, this isn’t just about athletics. This is the biggest crowd we’ve had in at least 20 years. It’s an amazing night for Coolidge. But, you come out during the week, and when you see 100 students on the field practicing for JV and varsity, those are kids who have at least a 2.0 GPA, or they can’t be out here. And you look at all the pompom girls and the cheerleaders we’ve got—this is probably the biggest cheerleading squad in the school’s history this year—and they’ve got to keep the grades up, too. And you have to see the energy kids have had in the hallways all year. This is part of that.”

As the massive crowd began heading toward the parking lots and adjacent streets, Sam Cooke’s “A Change Is Gonna Come” started playing over the new PA. It’s a protest song, not a stadium anthem.

It felt so right.