UPPER MARLBORO – When American astronauts Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin landed on the moon during NASA’s Apollo 11 mission on July 20, 1969, everyone marveled the otherworldly achievement.
After the next mission resulted similarly, some argued that landing on the moon was foreseen to be an inevitability…until Apollo 13.
Astronauts Jim Lovell, Fred Haise and Jack Swigert, failed to touch the moon’s surface but managed to survive in space after enduring an electrical failure which forced the crew to improvise by using the Lunar Module as a “lifeboat” to unconventionally guide them home with limited power, heat and oxygen.
Known as a “successful failure,” Apollo 13 turned out to have the same effect for Frederick Douglass High School Head Football Coach Julius Pinkney and the 2018-2019 Eagles who lost key players to graduation, injury and fought through adversity to hoist the Maryland Public Secondary Schools Athletic Association (MPSSAA) 1A State Championship Runner-Up title.
Pinkney led a team that was once a young, battered and mostly inexperienced group to a state football final appearance which many questioned would ever happen. Though no one could blame them with offseason injuries and ever-evolving position battles that occurred throughout the year.
However, Pinkney found a way to adapt and overcome as he exuberantly raised the runner-up plaque after the 1A title game on Dec. 1, 2018, against Fort Hill High School with pride knowing what he and his team had to endure, a squad that he said was the most resilient of any that he has ever coached in his illustrious career.
“For anyone that goes to the state championship and they don’t win it and have a disappointing feeling is kind of disrespectful to the game I feel, because I know how hard coaches work and players work and so on to get to that point,” Pinkney said. “Very few people have the experience of going to and playing in a state championship game.
“We didn’t ultimately reach our goal, but what I did notice was what we learned about along the way. We learned a lot about ourselves, and it was a very successful year. Those kids have memories of a lifetime playing in a stadium that very few kids in our county are able to play, no one else in our county played in a state championship game last year.”
Now, he has a talented assortment of student-athletes who played a full year or more together and are ready to take the next step to complete the journey this season looking to add the school’s second championship to the trophy case.
The Maryland High School Hall of Fame Coach won Douglass’ only state championship back in 2014 when he led the Eagles to an undefeated record. He hopes to replicate that same type of success this year with a familiar face under center.
Douglass junior quarterback Devin Harding will take the reigns of the Eagles offense yet again. The 6-foot-1, 195-pound standout threw for more than 1,000 yards and six touchdowns and showed that he had full command of the offense.
“Last year was kind of rough for me,” Harding said. “It was my first time coming up to varsity as a sophomore, so it was a rough time for me adjusting to the offense, but throughout the season, I got better and better.”
The last time Pinkney had a quarterback of the same name (Devin), true freshman Devin Butler guided Douglass to a 2A state finals appearance. Similar to Harding, he was not victorious his first go-round.
It was not until the former University of Syracuse product’s junior year that he won the only championship for Pinkney in which the head coach jokingly suggested that Harding might be in position to repeat history.
“Devin (Harding) is an all-in kid, and he is Douglass through and through. He loves our program, and he loves our school,” Pinkey said. “He started four games as a freshman on JV, and then he comes in and helps lead us to a state finalist season.
“He started the year off hurt in the first scrimmage of the season and then is down. He had a lot to catch up on, but as the season progressed, he got better and better every week. Right now, I’m thrilled because he is an extension of the coaching staff. I know that he is going to have a very good year for us.”
Harding will have the benefit of a workhorse running back keeping defenses honest with the support of senior tailback Zavier Price. Price was money behind the Eagles offensive line just a season ago, averaging 4.8 yards per carry and found the endzone five times.
Price was not a significant factor in the passing game last year, but the captain has been working hard to add that extra facet to his repertoire so he can finish his playing career at Douglass on top.
Though Douglass (8-5) battled through adversity last season, they still felt disrespected. Pinkney mentioned that Dunbar High School (Baltimore) players laughed at the Eagles as they stepped off of the bus before their 1A semifinals match on Nov. 24, 2018, and thought they were a junior varsity team.
However, Pinkney’s crew was motivated to prove the Poets wrong and did so by defeating the perennial powerhouse 20-6. The Poets shutout Douglass High School (Baltimore) and Reginald F. Lewis High School by a combined score of 70-0 until that fateful day, but the Eagles were not going to be rolled over.
“We were playing a very talented Dunbar team that no one expected us to win, but there wasn’t a doubtful person in that locker room at halftime even though we were relegated to playing basically almost anybody at that point, but our kids believed we could do it and came out victorious.”
“That (Douglass) was probably one of our least talented teams as far as experience, physical nature, so we weren’t a physical team coming off the bus. Their players were laughing at our guys, and I’m talking about really laughing at our guys like they couldn’t believe that we were still in the tournament with a team that looked like our team did.”
Price surpassed the century mark on the ground averaging more than 8.1 yards per carry including a 61-yard scamper to paydirt against the Poets.
“It felt great because we came together in tight situations in order to get to the championship and we are trying to do it this year. “We were underdogs in the playoffs, so I was glad that we were able to upset all of those teams to show that we were the better team and we came together as a group,” Price said. “We’re not going to let you laugh at us. This year we are going to win it, most definitely.”
Harding had his most efficient performance of the year against the team that thought he did not belong by accounting for a 118.1 quarterback rating and threw a touchdown with no interceptions.
Another player to watch out for is athlete Malik Pettaway. Pettaway saved one of his best performances of the year against Dunbar as well. He accounted for 88 all-purpose yards and racked up eight tackles defensively against Dunbar.
“That got me hyped because they actually thought that we were a JV team and once we got off the bus they started laughing, and we didn’t pay them no attention,” Pettaway said.
Pettaway comes into his senior year as one of three captains who said it is going to be hard to take him off the field this season.
His versatility is worth mentioning as he does a little bit of everything. When Harding missed the second game of the season against Central High School rehabbing from an MCL injury, Pettaway started at quarterback and threw two touchdowns and rushed for one as well in a 42-0 drubbing of the Falcons on Sept. 8, 2018.
“We progressed every week knowing that we were the smallest team against everyone that we played against, but we knew that we had just to do more than they were doing to get us where we were,” Pettaway said about how the season progressed.
“There were a lot of people injured. We had like three starters go down even through the playoffs and everything, but we knew that we had good backups that were ready to play, so we knew that we could still do it.”
Pettaway has received four offers to play football collegiately, including the likes of Towson University and West Liberty University.
The last senior captain that provides senior leadership for this unit is Geo-Di Tolbert. The free safety averaged 5.8 tackles a game and disrupted offensive gameplans at will. By year’s end, Tolbert racked up 76 tackles, forced and recovered one fumble, and had an interception.
“We had a championship mentality. I feel like we have a lot of talent, I feel like as long we have talent that works (hard), then we are going to win it all. Talent can get you the championship, but talent won’t win you the championship. I feel as though we have enough talent to get us there and enough discipline to win the chip.”
Due to the numerous injuries at the start of the season which forced Pinkey to use three different quarterbacks and move players up from the junior varsity squad, one young player truly stood out.
Rising sophomore Tyree Newman fought his way through the junior varsity ranks to make an impact as a true freshman last season. He averaged more than 10 tackles per game and played his first varsity contest against Gwynn Park High School during the third week of the regular season.
How did he fare you might ask?
The standout had 15 tackles including a sack against the Yellow Jackets. The 5-foot-10, 178-pound prodigy accounted for 75 tackles in just seven games.
Pinkney believes that he has the potential of breaking former NFL All-Pro linebacker (University of Maryland) Shawn Merriman’s tackle record at Douglass.
With a perfect mix of players who have experienced the bitter taste of defeat and a youthful group of student-athletes who see that playing in a championship game is a possibility, the Eagles look to be a very dangerous team.
Douglass now resides in the 2A division where they enjoyed championship glory in the past. Having a collective chip on the shoulders of the Eagles has been a rallying cry to finish the job this season to convert that energy into winning the chip.
“Our kids have a taste of it, and things didn’t quite work out and my conversation with Malik (Pettaway) and as we were walking off the field after the championship game I said look around, we’ll be back next year, and we’ll win the thing,” Pinkey said. That is our goal, and we want to fulfill it.”
Douglass will start the quest for a title against Anne Arundel County-based Old Mill High School on Sept. 6.
“It was a great accomplishment for that team, but our expectations for this team are higher this year,” Pinkney said. “It was a testament to our staff at how well we coached together. We know what we have, and we know what we can do…which was a testament to our kids and believing in our vision.”