BLADENSBURG – Following the cancellation of the Bladensburg High School varsity football program this year on Aug. 31, the first county school to do so, three main reasons were cited: number of participants, involvement from Latino students and player safety.
However, each argument has yet to be validated and the canceled year has left upperclassmen players with college aspirations robbed of athletic scholarship opportunities.
“The fact that you may not get seen and get recruited for collegiate football and play, it left me feeling like I do not want to play,” senior safety Daryn Boden said. “And I do want to play football at the next level, so I felt sad and disrespected in a way.”
Numbers do not match
Bladensburg Athletic Director Jamie Cook said he was quick in trying to address the concerns of Head Coach Bryon Westbrook as soon as he was hired in July.
After third quarter report cards in 2017 showed that many returning players had low grades, Westbrook canceled offseason weight training in May for students to focus on their studies to be eligible to play the upcoming season.
However, Cook, together with other high-ranking school officials, decided on Aug. 30, the night before the opening game of the season, to forgo the varsity year and play a junior varsity schedule, according to PGCPS Coordinating Supervisor Earl Hawkins. When asked on the situation, Cook claimed that there not enough players to fill out a varsity team.
“We did not want to do this. We tried to prolong this as long as possible, but you know how it is, sometimes you say, ‘you think you can make it, you think you can make it,’ but this time, the numbers did not pan out,” Cook said.
Cook said only 24 players were consistent in attending practices, which is two players more than the required minimum needed to participate in varsity football, according to the PGCPS Athletics Handbook. That number has now grown to 35 players since the switch over to a JV schedule.
Robo-calls and emails were sent out to the whole student body about conditioning camps and the deadline to have the minimum number of players was extended, Hawkins said.
Johnette Boden, mother of Daryn, said parents and players were polled on if they would prefer playing a varsity or JV side. Despite the overwhelming response, school officials did not choose the majority vote with just two weeks remaining until the first scheduled game against Eleanor Roosevelt High School.
“We knew for a very long time that the team did not have a lot of kids,” Boden said. “It was discussed to the kids during the summer that they may not have two teams and they asked them what they would like the week before the season, and they said we want a varsity.”
Instead of participating in varsity with two more than the minimum requirement, the Mustangs dropped to JV while other teams are currently playing with low roster numbers.
Currently, with 24 players, Fairmont Heights High School sits atop the 3A/2A/1A standings with an undefeated record (7-0) and were recently profiled for their success with a small roster.
This year, Friendly High School started with 12 players on their varsity roster and it grew to 25 for their game against Suitland High School on Sept. 21, over a month past the deadline period. Head Coach Eugene Dubose said he would rather see his players receive the experience in games that count towards an opportunity in their future.
“I got seven returners, four kids that have never played before and the rest of them have not been playing football that long,” Dubose said. “…It is not an excuse but we are going to be alright and just hang in there.”
Bladensburg Principal Aisha Mahoney declined to comment and attempted to block this reporter from talking to players. After his initial interview on the cancellation on Sept. 7, Cook has declined multiple requests to comment further and did not provide media access to the team’s home opener on Sept. 21. This publication purchased tickets to see Bladensburg take on Gwynn Park High School.
Latinos play the game
The Hispanic/Latino student population accounted for more than 66 percent of Bladensburg’s enrollment last year, according to the Maryland State Department of Education. However, during the topic the levels of interest in the sport, Hawkins said the demographics of the neighborhood work against football and its ability to add more players to the roster.
“I do not think it is by a lack of interest in sports in general,” Hawkins said. “It is lack of interest in the sport of football because they do not play our sport as much as our students do it or they have not been exposed to it like other areas in the county.”
It is unclear how one’s ethnicity correlates to roster construction, but for Bladensburg, it has worked out well. Westbrook confirmed that more than 10 players are of Latino decent and the team’s captain and most experienced player, two-way lineman Hernan Rodriguez, is originally from Nicaragua. He was the most visibly upset after the decision was announced, sobbing and being consoled by his teammates.
“I’ve been in the Riverdale/Bladensburg area my whole life, and that is my school,” Rodriguez said. “And after the 2017 season, I think we ended on a strong note, playing a good game vs. (Charles H.) Flowers and thought the team could go far…So going through this whole process with this team and having it being stripped away on my senior year, it was kind of surreal.”
Meanwhile, at Northwestern High School, whose Latino students accumulate 65.2 percent of the student population, has both a junior varsity and a varsity team. For Rodriguez, Bladensburg does not have an ethnicity-player problem but a perception problem that the cancellation did not address.
“This is a diverse school so you cannot say it is because of an influx of one race or ethnicity’s fault that the team fell off,” Rodriguez said. “It is mainly because there is no school pride and some students are too cool to get out of their comfort zone.”
Hawkins has yet to respond to the previous report on his comments.
While he was told of the decision as he entered the Bladensburg campus, for Westbrook, it was late but the easy decision. As more than 50 percent of his players were learning the sport for the first time, leaving the risks of a student-athlete being unprepared for the contact in football outweighed any possible single victory, Westbrook said.
“I am in the business of developing kids, making sure these kids are having fun, winning games and making sure that they are safe,” Westbrook said. “… If I put these same kids to play a varsity schedule, there would be injuries because kids who never played (varsity players) are playing.”
With the current climate of football and concussion-related injuries, the county has tried assuring that students and parents are aware of their safety risks. As part of the online health form registration, families are required to read the CDC concussion information sheet to participate in athletics.
Coaches are certified trainers and instructors to teach the players how to play. Starting last year, trainers were being added for all high schools. They are all trained on performing concussion baseline tests.
According to Hawkins, Prince George’s County does not have a rule against seniors playing for a junior varsity team, which allowed the program to drop to a lower level instead of playing in varsity. This has allowed Westbrook to train his younger players and develop them during in-game situations.
“We are getting better because they are getting comfortable,” Westbrook said. “You are supposed to get better week-by-week but we are playing the kids that we should be playing against, and that is why our JV games are competitive.”
However, if safety was a critical concern, the participation size of upperclassman was not considered when county and school officials took the approach to cancel the season. Players that may not have wanted to be a part of the Bladensburg project could only transfer to other schools on a “case-by-case basis” with county permission, officials said though that process was not thoroughly explained on record.
To be clear, coaches in the county are certified to make sure that every player can properly participate safely regardless of skill level while JV holds the same risk of injury due to the violent nature of the sport as it does in the varsity ranks.
While Westbrook states the majority being first-time players, 12 players are of varsity caliber and were left behind.
They were left playing games that are beneath their skill level while younger talents missed out on a season to perform for a state playoff berth.
“It was kind of disappointing and frustrating,” sophomore linebacker Junior Marquez said. “…Everyone was happy that were going to play varsity, try to go to the playoffs and see how far we can go for the championship. There was a feeling that we would have competed.”