Missing: kickers for city football teams

ON HIGH SCHOOLS

December 06, 2006|By MILTON KENT

Walking out of Lumsden-Scott Stadium on Saturday afternoon, Stanley Mitchell ran into a friend who was preparing to take his son and another boy to soccer practice at Du Burns Arena.

Mitchell, the former Dunbar football coach, quickly shifted from watching the Poets narrowly advance to Saturday's state Class 1A final into advice mode to the two boys about how they could parlay their soccer skills into something promising on the gridiron.

"I said, `Man, if y'all can kick that ball, you can convert that into a scholarship on the other side,' " Mitchell said. "A lot of people don't really realize that. I tell kids all the time, `You'd be surprised how quickly you can get to the next level if you can kick.' "

Goodness knows, Dunbar could have used a kicker in Saturday's 26-20 win over Elkton, as the Poets failed three times in going for two points after touchdowns, and needed a miraculous catch from Maurice Portee on their go-ahead score with 1:45 to go to get a conversion after their fourth touchdown of the day.

Dunbar, which will play Fort Hill of Allegany County at M&T Bank Stadium on Saturday, had to go for a touchdown on the final drive rather than a field goal because the Poets have no place-kicker. And before Tavon Austin scored on that drive, the difference in the game was two field goals from Elkton's Chris Hill, including a 37-yarder just before halftime.

"The extra point is an important part of the game," Mitchell said. "I watched the Dunbar game and I thought, `Man, if they don't cash in these extra points, they might lose this game.' "

The Poets aren't alone in eschewing the extra point. Take a look at just about any summary involving a city school and you're more likely to see a team going to run or pass after a touchdown than kicking it. City, for instance, didn't have a place-kicker this season and missed a two-point conversion in its 7-6 loss to Franklin in the 3A North regional final.

In theory, it shouldn't seem that difficult to produce a kicking game. You just need one kid to snap the ball, one to hold, usually the punter or a quarterback, and a third who can kick. Easy, right?

According to Dunbar coach Ben Eaton, it's not that simple. You have to have someone willing to kick, and that someone hasn't emerged in recent seasons. A large part of that, Eaton said, is because Dunbar doesn't have a boys soccer program, where a kid who might have the foot, but not necessarily the skill to play soccer, could try to kick extra points and field goals for the football team.

"I don't know about the other schools, but if we had a kicking game, we'd have a kicker," said Eaton, who uses a transfer from Lake Clifton to punt and kick off. "But we don't have soccer. There are some kids in the school that play soccer, and I try to get them to come out, but they won't come out."

Mitchell, who preceded Eaton at Dunbar before coaching at Morgan State, concurred.

"It's hard to put it in a kid's head," Mitchell said. "And if you don't have a soccer program, you have to spend a whole bunch of time trying to develop someone, and you don't have a lot of time to develop a kid, unless he's a natural and you see something that you can send on to a camp."

The issue of kicking is particularly acute at schools with majority African-American student bodies, or "urban schools" as Mitchell calls them. While the matter of black quarterbacks has largely been settled at the NFL or collegiate level, thanks to players like former Washington Redskins quarterback Doug Williams, or active players like Donovan McNabb of the Philadelphia Eagles or the Atlanta Falcons' Michael Vick, the list of black place-kickers in the NFL is largely confined to Obed Ariri and Donald Igwebuike, both formerly of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, and Cedric Oglesby, formerly of the Arizona Cardinals.

The current list of black NFL kickers is empty, and without role models to follow, it's difficult to sell some kids on the joys of kicking.

"I'm not going to say it's racial," Eaton said. "I'll say it's what the parents want from the kids. Like, they have the kicking camps and things like that that the kids can go to, but that's not a premier thing in the city. The kids go to the camps for every other position, but they don't bother to go for kicking. And it's very important. Some of the nuances that you can learn would help a lot."

So far, not having a kicker hasn't seemed to hurt Dunbar all that much, and if the Poets are holding a trophy aloft come Saturday, they won't miss a kicker at all.

"We go for two," Eaton said. "You do the things that you do best."

milton.kent@baltsun.com

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