Just 15 seconds remained in the final quarter of host West Springfield’s 48-6 smashing of the Annandale Atoms Friday night. The Spartan quarterback frantically signaled for a timeout with his team just a yard away from another touchdown, an attempt to run up the score in the last game of the season that could well have triggered an all-hands brawl. After the unwarranted recess was granted, some adults on the Annandale sideline shot expletives across the field. But the Atoms’ head coach reacted more strongly to the elders’ epithets than he did to the opposition’s affront. Coach Dick Adams sternly ordered the loudmouths to clean up their acts, and nobly commanded his young charges to maintain their composure.
Until this year, Adams hadn’t had much experience losing football games by any margin, let alone 42 points. But as an Annandale alum and longtime coach, he was well aware that you could fill a stadium with schoolboy footballers who’d been at the receiving end of substantial whuppings from past Atoms teams. The Washington area likes to trumpet itself as football mad. In truth, the passion shown for the Redskins has never trickled down to the amateur ranks. Outside of Annandale, that is. For whatever reason, Annandale is the only community in Northern Virginia that obsesses over its high-school football program the way burgs in western Pennsylvania or eastern Ohio or all of Texas do. No kid worth his testosterone grows up in Annandale without dreaming about one day wearing the modest red-and-white uniform of the Atoms.
The townspeople’s patronage has been rewarded handsomely: The Atoms have racked up more state championships than a lot of schools have had winning seasons. Coach Adams played on two teams that went all the way, and coached on four more. The Atoms’ reputation was such that U.S. military personnel who were transferred to the Pentagon often looked for a home in Annandale just so their kids could play for the team.
That tradition must be the reason the Washington Post placed the Atoms atop its 1995 preseason poll. Though, in fairness to the Post, the Atoms were riding a 26-game winning streak going into this year. But the Atoms’ play this season, even well before the West Springfield thrashing, makes the forecast seem as off-the-mark as “Dewey Beats Truman.” Before 1995, no Annandale team ever had a losing record. But in the opener, Herndon scored more than 50 points on the Atoms, and to the amazement of those familiar with local high-school football, the team didn’t post its first win until Game 5. Only one other victory would come Annandale’s way during the balance of the season.
In years past, the Atoms would have kicked the snot out of the Spartans—a team that won only four of its first nine games. But on Friday night, West Springfield’s dominance exceeded its winning margin: Tailback Damon Boone picked up 500 yards on the ground. The highest single game rushing total ever allowed in Virginia.
“I guess we were due for something like this,” shrugged Atoms fan Robert “Buck” Henry at halftime. His team was already down 28-0. Henry, 77, has been coming to Annandale’s games since 1960, when his son played for the team. He took in last week’s sorry proceedings while sitting in the passenger seat of a pickup truck parked alongside the Spartans’ field. His doctor had initially ordered him to stay home that night and rest. But after realizing that his patient would just as soon die as skip an Annandale football game, the doc changed his prescription to OK viewing from the truck’s cab. After all, Henry rescheduled open-heart surgery two years ago so he wouldn’t miss his beloved team in action. That show of allegiance inspired the Annandale coaches to give him a state championship ring after the 1993 season, which Henry wears everywhere.
“You don’t find guys like [Buck Henry] at other schools,” said bleacher-dweller Dan Carayiannis, class of ’72. “That’s one example of what makes Annandale special.” Carayiannis brought his family to cheer on his former school, his step-brother (head coach Adams) and his brother, assistant coach Jamie Carayiannis, an All-Met running back for Annandale in the mid-’70s. (Amazingly, nine of the team’s 12 coaches are alumni.) His tensomething kid served as a ballboy on the Atoms sideline, wearing a “State Champions” sweatshirt in Annandale colors.
While Dan Carayiannis sat through the on-field massacre with a quiet, melancholy stare, a more recent Annandale alum, sporting a military haircut and a red-white-and-blue leather jacket emblazoned with “USA,” traipsed around the stands maniacally. Reminiscing out loud about his days as an Annandale Atom, he imparted—on more than one occasion—a tall tale of how a Marine Corps drill sergeant had tried unsuccessfully to force him to remove his state championship ring during boot camp. “He was jealous, but he gave up when he realized that I’ll never take it off,” smirked the marine, to everybody and to nobody.
After the rambling jarhead moved on, Carayiannis calmly lamented the impact that the military’s post- Cold War downsizing and the demographic fluxes of inside-the-beltway communities like Annandale had on his alma mater’s winning tradition. Adams’ recent success, he added, is nothing short of miraculous; enrollment is way down, and for the first time in the school’s history, there were no cuts on the Atoms varsity football team this year. In fact, some JV games were postponed because underclassmen were needed to fill out the Friday-night roster. Just 38 players dressed for the game against West Springfield, only 13 of them seniors.
The losing spate has cut into the Atoms’ legendary fan base. Pointing to the sparse crowd that took up only about a third of the visitors’ stands, Carayiannis said, “Any other year, we would have packed this place.” He quickly added that the losses weren’t enough to dampen the mood at this year’s homecoming game, when members of the school’s 1965 team, most showcasing their scarlet letter jackets, returned to campus to celebrate the 30-year anniversary of their state championship.
There was but one glimmer of that school spirit Friday. It came after West Springfield’s ill-advised timeout, when the beleaguered, beaten-up Atoms defense huddled on the sideline for a final pep talk from Adams, and then lined up at the goal line for the game’s last play. At the snap, Boone, who’d already scored five touchdowns, took a handoff and dove into the middle, but was stopped for no gain for the first time all night. The losing team’s wholly unexpected stand inspired a raucous ovation from the Atoms’ faithful. After all the disappointment and heartbreak, the season ended with Annandale’s fans cheering wildly. Just like any other year.