Sitting on a desk, Sterling Jones, a strong safety who is one of Edmondson's most vocal and emotional players, cannot stop his legs from twitching. He crosses and uncrosses his arms. His fingernails are bitten down to the cuticle. This game -- and this entire season -- will likely determine his future, and he knows it. He needs a football scholarship to afford college. Without one, he's reluctant to imagine what will happen next. For now, he doesn't want to think about it. He tries to focus on the video screen.
"Playing the line is not for the weak of heart, y'all," Walker mumbles. Then he explodes: "SO STEP UP AND BLOCK SOMEBODY!"
After watching a few more plays, he moves on to the cornerbacks.
"Dionta, you've got to take a proper angle, son! Look what happens when you try to make this tackle because you took a bad angle. If you undersized, and you trying to play at the next level, you damn sure better be a good tackler. You hear me?"
Dionta Cox -- an undersized cornerback -- nods. Never one of Edmondson's star players, he has developed into one of the team's most reliable in the past two years. Criticism never bothered him. As the nephew of the head coach, he has learned to take it in stride.
As Walker and Edmondson's players study the tape -- with Walker pausing and rewinding every 10 seconds -- another man, 30, slips into the dark classroom from the empty hallway and pulls up a chair. He is tall and subdued. He has long dreadlocks, pulled into a ponytail, and a neatly trimmed beard. He leans over and whispers something to linebacker Kyle Jackson, one of the team leaders, whom the coaches call the Quiet Assassin. The two exchange warm smiles.
Walker continues his lecture, preaching proper pursuit angles, but most of the players can't resist stealing a glance at the man with the dreadlocks. As he watches the video, he folds his arms and nods in approval at the replay of a long run by one of Edmondson's running backs, Tariq Jones. Tariq, one of Edmondson's few Muslim students, is slumped over on his desk, tugging on his sideburns, deep in thought.
When the room gets rowdy after Sterling delivers a big hit on Douglass' quarterback, Edmondson's head coach breaks his silence for the first time.
"Gentlemen," says Dante Jones, barely raising his voice more than a few decibels. "Be respectful. Pay attention."
Five words and everyone is still.
Replacing a legend
Even legends get worn down. After the 2004 season, Pete Pompey was tired. His hair had turned silver years ago,and he now had as many wrinkles as he did memories. After 31 years of coaching high school football in Baltimore, his time had come to a satisfying and logical end. It was now up to Delphine Lee, Edmondson's principal, to find a worthy successor.
Which most people thought would be impossible.
Pompey wasn't just a legend at Edmondson; he was a legend in the city and beyond. Only four coaches in Maryland history had won more games than Pompey when he retired, but it went deeper than his record. Politicians,businessmen, police officers, working professionals -- they all respected him because he had coached innercity boys, a bigger challenge than coaching in the affluence of the suburbs. He shaped the lives of so many of them.The men standing on street corners, the ones he'd tried to help but couldn't save, respected him, too, because he continued to reach out, never turning his back on them.
There would be no shortage of candidates. Before Pompey had made it official, Lee had begun to receive phone calls, bunches of them, some from as far away as New York.
What have you started? she teased him.
Lee understood the significance of her decision. While some principals tolerated athletics, Lee embraced them. Her husband, Earl Lee, had coached sports at Lake Clifton High for many years, so she knew how important the football players could be in shaping the student body. They helped maintain order. They instilled pride. They set examples, good and bad, that other kids followed. With so many forces on the streets working against educators, picking the right coach, someone who would often be the dominant male figure in the lives of many of these students, was crucial. The coach couldn't care only about winning or his resume. Mostly, he had to care about the kids.
Pompey had a plan. No surprise there. He had been grooming one of his assistants, Dante Jones, for several years, letting him call the plays at first, then allowing him to run the team as Pompey stepped back a bit, ceding nearly all of his day-to-day responsibilities. Jones was humble and eager, and he was also, in Pompey's opinion, an intense listener, perhaps his greatest attribute. The players adored him and craved his praise. He had grown up in West Baltimore, attended Dunbar and played linebacker and wide receiver for one of the best teams in the city's history, winning a state title in 1994, the first ever by a Baltimore team.