It’s OK to love Disney’s “Remember the Titans,” but to regain the success of 1970s and 1980s, T.C. Williams football needs to forget the past and write its own script.
By Dan Friedell • Photography by Jonathan Timmes
First Quarter: It’s the middle of the summer and there’s hardly a soul inside Alexandria’s Landmark Mall. Many of the city’s residents are thinking about beach vacations and pool time. But T.C. Williams’ Jeremiah Clarke, a 6-foot-5, 278 lb. lineman on his way to the University of North Carolina to play football next year, and his father, James, are here talking football.
“If they can piggyback off the way they finished last year against three good teams, it will pay dividends going into the conference schedule,” says James, referencing T.C.’s four-straight wins to close 2012.
By the time you read this story, the 2013 T.C. Williams High School football season will be four games old and it will be clear if the Titans are on their way to a playoff season for the first time since 1990. The opening three games are a worthy measure of which way their season will go: Oakton, Centreville and Langley all made the playoffs in 2012, and the first two schools are the most-recent Northern Region champions. Two or three wins, along with a victory in Game 4 against W.T. Woodson would give T.C. Williams a significant boost in the all-important computer rankings which serve as tie-breakers when 16 playoff spots in the Virginia High School League’s Class 6A North are decided in November. Two or three losses would mean the Titans can’t afford to lose any of their remaining six games.
“[Even] winning one of those [first three] games will help us out,” says Jeremiah, who made an impression on college coaches last year when he swarmed Lake Braddock’s Caleb Henderson, a quarterback who would later declare his intention to attend UNC, perhaps to avoid being crunched by Clarke for four more years in college.
When Carolina took a closer look at Clarke, it also discovered teammate Malik Carney, a chiseled linebacker and running back who impressed them in the weight room and later during a camp in Chapel Hill. The Tar Heels added him to their list of recruits, too.
So with two Division 1 recruits; junior quarterback Darius Holland, who impressed college scouts over the summer during 7-on-7 skills camps; and 40-or-so hard-working kids who know the high-tempo, attacking playbook, the Titans should break their playoff drought, right?
“That sounds completely reasonable to me,” says Alec Grosser, a 2012 graduate and three-year Titans quarterback who is now playing minor league baseball after being drafted as a pitcher in June by the Atlanta Braves.
“You either have to have a player who can put the team on his back, or a real good tradition with good players,” says Jay Whitmire, a 2011 grad now playing offensive line for the University of Virginia.
It sounds like a simple formula, but in spite of a past that includes three state championships between 1971 and 1987, it has taken years for T.C. Williams to come up with the right mix of ingredients. About a decade ago, the Titans featured Tony Hunt, one of the best players in Virginia who went on to star at Penn State and only managed a handful of wins. Coaches who had success elsewhere—like Larry Johnson, who is known as an outstanding position coach at Penn State, and Eric Henderson, Caleb’s father, who recently coached West Potomac to a series of winning seasons and is now the offensive coordinator at Lake Braddock—struggled to build a winning program in Alexandria, too.
How come? Good question. Ask 20 people why T.C. Williams—the largest high school in Virginia, with no shortage of good athletes (see its basketball team’s consistent success) —has struggled to win football games, you’ll get 20 different answers. Here are just a few:
• There aren’t enough young families with high-school aged kids in the city.
• The lack of lights at Parker-Gray Stadium results in lightly attended Saturday afternoon home games, and prevents a true “Friday Night Lights” kind of atmosphere.
• Some kids on the team are on reduced-price lunch programs, so maybe they’re not getting enough to eat, and that affects their performance.
• Private schools like Episcopal and St. Stephens are recruiting Alexandria’s best athletes out of middle school.
• There are a lot of immigrant families in the city who don’t know much about football. And don’t encourage their kids to go out for the team.
• Budget cuts have reduced the number of youth football opportunities available in the city, and constricted the pipeline into the high school team.
• You can’t put up permanent advertising in the stadium, so that limits fund-raising by the boosters.
• And the city’s 2.0 GPA requirement for athletes means some of the best potential football players end up relegated to the bleachers.
That comes from people who are willing to speak openly about T.C. Williams football. But there are plenty of folks who will refuse to talk about the team’s fortunes, in fear of saying something negative about the city’s only high school. In spite of repeated efforts, both the mayor and police chief, ex-players, failed to follow-up on promises to talk with Northern Virginia Magazine for this story. It’s no secret the team has only had a handful of winning seasons since 1990, but people in Alexandria act as if it were. Even head coach Dennis Randolph, 60, in his seventh year at T.C. and a veteran of the Northern Virginia high school football scene was reluctant to talk at first.
While all the above points have some validity, they’re easy to neutralize. “C’mon, that’s ridiculous,” says James Clarke, who assists the basketball team and has become a fixture on the football team’s sidelines due to his son’s key role, when told of the idea that some T.C. Williams football players are going hungry. “There’s not a bunch of bony little kids walking around at the school.” As far as day games go, when it comes time for the regional playoffs, the Titans’ experience playing on Saturday afternoons should be a benefit. “I don’t know if anyone at T.C. knows that,” says Grosser, with a resigned laugh from his hotel room near Disney. And carrying a ‘C’ average through high school shouldn’t be so difficult that the largest student body in the state can’t produce two-dozen decent football players each year. (Plus, college recruiters aren’t willing to look at a kid if he’s not getting good grades in the first place.) After all, they had over 100 kids come out for the first day of official practice.
But of all the things that might be casting a shadow on the football program, the biggest might be the expectations prompted by the 2000 release of “Remember the Titans,” which told the story of the 1971 championship season precipitated by the merger of T.C. Williams and Alexandria’s other high schools, George Washington and Hammond. The film made T.C. Williams’ football team nationally identifiable but placed a heavy burden on the current generation of players, to live up to the expectations of a film that relied heavily upon Hollywood storytelling. If the Titans are to recapture some of the magic that saw them win three state titles in 16 years, they need to write their own script. Let 2013 be Page 1.
Back in June, a week after school let out, the front of the campus on King Street was mostly empty, save for a few administrators walking to their cars. But the grunts and yells audible through a door around back signal the football team is already hard at work on its script.
“Get that weight off your head!” bellows one coach at a player who’s resting one beat too long.
“C’mon, y’all ain’t workin’,” says Clarke, who makes even his large teammates look small.
“Aaargh!” screams a sophomore who can hardly lift the 35-pound plate over his head. Twelve shoulder presses seems a bold request. Sweat puddles on the floor and body heat clouds the windows.
The combination of 70-odd sweat-stained teenagers trying to get in shape for the upcoming season and a humid Alexandria afternoon makes the air stagnant and sour. The dream of a crisp fall day is the only kind of fresh air available.
The kids are a mix of shapes, sizes and ages. There’s Clarke amid little boys, rising eighth graders who don’t weigh 100 lbs. but will be going out for the freshman team. There’s a gangly kid with light brown curls who looks as if he’s grown six inches in the last month and might never be able to get his size-16 feet pointed in the right direction during agility drills. Next to him is a fireplug with long hair who sneers at me when I laugh at the coach after he tells his players: “You can puke if you want, but don’t do it in the hallway.”
The noise, energy and sheer numbers are impressive. Not too long ago, coaches say, half as many kids showed up for the summer’s first workout. But the scene at T.C. isn’t any different from what’s happening this same week on the campuses of conference rivals and potential playoff foes like Lake Braddock, Westfield, South County and Robinson. They’re all doing their own training sessions, shaking off the demons of last year’s disappointments and clearing the decks for this one. It’s an optional workout, sure. But it’s a requirement if your team expects to compete.
All schools have their disappointments and losing streaks. If Herndon’s football team had missed the playoffs for 20 consecutive seasons (which it hasn’t, in spite of playing in a tougher league than T.C. Williams) nobody would care. But there’s one difference between those schools and T.C.: Denzel Washington didn’t play the team’s old head coach in a Disney movie.
“Remember the Titans” makes for great party conversation, says Jerry Whitmire, Jay’s father. It was an easy lead-in to the handful of articles written about Grosser, the former quarterback, after he was drafted by the Braves. But Washington has only been in 40 movies. And when one of them is about YOUR school, you get questions like this:
“I thought you guys were supposed to be GOOD at football. What’s the problem?”
And when your team is losing on the road to lowly W.T. Woodson, the movie’s most inspirational line: “You make sure they remember—forever—the night they played the Titans!” gets tauntingly turned against you thanks to YouTube and easy access to digital sound clips. As the clock ticks down, the sound bite cuts hard. So how can this school get out of the rut? First step, eliminate anything having to do with the movie.
There are about a dozen banners hanging in the school’s athletic lobby commemorating past sports success. Three football state titles, 2008’s basketball championship, wins in track and field. But there’s an interloper: a banner reading “Alexandria’s Titans” shows Denzel Washington as Coach Herman Boone, leading the team to victory in the movie. Take it down and forget that Disney’s Titans have anything to do with T.C. Williams. Hollywood’s burden is too much, and the players know it.
In a Twitter conversation earlier this year, Clarke said he and his teammates try not to think too much about the movie. “[But] I wish it wasn’t hanging over our heads,” he wrote.
“I really don’t mind it, but a lot of people bring up the movie,” says Carney. “But what we’re trying to do here is start a whole legacy. Make a new movie. Our coaches always say ‘How do you want to be remembered?’ Do you want to be remembered as just another team that didn’t make the playoffs or do you want to be remembered as that team that broke the streak. We keep that in mind.”
One person who wishes the movie would go away is former player Greg Paspatis, a 1978 grad who has cultivated a lifelong interest in Alexandria sport. “There’s just a lot of factors that have built up over the years that have put them in this predicament,” says Paspatis of the playoff drought which included multiple long losing streaks. “Coach Randolph has been a stabilizing force. He’s well-connected with the Northern Virginia scene and I wish him well.”
Randolph is in his seventh year as the team’s coach, and while he missed most of 2011 undergoing treatment for pancreatic cancer, he’s produced one winning season and two 5-5 years out of the last six. His 19-21 record over the last four seasons heading into 2013 is one of the best stretches in the last two decades at T.C.
Randolph, like any good football coach, feels his own internal drive to win. So he says the movie doesn’t make him prepare for his job any differently. But it does shine a football-shaped spotlight on a school that doesn’t really deserve that attention, yet.
He talks about how the team is far from anonymous because of the film. “The University of Maryland had a Thursday night game two years ago, and we finished practice early and took 25 kids over there to see a game. We had all the kids wear their jerseys. So we had to ride a shuttle bus to the stadium from the parking lot, and once everyone on the bus realized we were the same Titans as the “Remember the Titans,” they stood up and started clapping for us. So you get a little bit of instant notoriety for being a part of that. And that happens everywhere we go. … But that has nothing to do with the current status of where are kids are on the field.”
Until the Titans manage to get into the playoffs, win a playoff game, host a Regional Championship game in Alexandria and perhaps even challenge for the state title, the movie monkey is firmly on their backs.
Randolph, 60, and assistant coach Avery Williams, 37, have started to change the culture at T.C. by bringing a sense of professionalism to the program. Randolph handles the offense and helps expose players to college recruiters. Williams handles the defense and year-round conditioning program. A July visit to the weight room, when Williams was the only one in the building, proved he practices what he preaches. His muscles stretched the confines of a tight shirt. The coaches are putting T.C. Williams back on the map of “must-visits” for college football recruiters who blanket Northern Virginia each year. They’re loading up vans and taking kids to colleges in the offseason to attend clinics, 7-on-7 tournaments (games played without linemen) and tryouts in places like Blacksburg and Chapel Hill.
With Whitmire (UVA) and his classmate Joe Massaquoi (Marshall), Grosser, who got interest as a quarterback before committing to baseball, Landon Moss (wide receiver at Coastal Carolina) and the current crop of kids who see football as a way to make a name for themselves and get to college, T.C. Williams—instead of just being known as a school they made a movie about—is becoming known as a school that has pretty decent football players. If the idea of playing football in college—even a small college—motivates one or two more kids to dedicate themselves in the offseason, that can account for the small difference between making and missing the playoffs.
“I give a lot of credit to Coach Randolph getting really involved in the recruiting, doing the 7-on-7 camps and getting people’s names out there,” says Jay Whitmire. “It’s definitely motivating for the next year’s guys to see the guys ahead of them going to college and playing football.”
But nothing’s more motivating than winning. And winning teams get attention from recruiters and reporters for a reason. Westfield, also one of the state’s largest schools, has only been open for a decade, a period of time which resulted in 124 wins and a pair of state titles. The Bulldogs get an organic brand of attention that T.C. Williams craves.
“We want to be known for being good football players, not because of being from the high school they made the movie about, but I guess that comes with playing T.C. football,” says Carney.
And on the first play on offense of his senior year, Carney set the tone for what should be an attention-filled season: running 54 yards for a touchdown. Clarke led the way on the offensive line, and recorded two sacks and a handful of tackles on defense. Holland threw three touchdown passes, showing patience, a strong arm and a quick release. Speedy receivers and returners Tyrice Henry, Rashawn Jackson, Philip Tyler and T.J. Jordan all scored. The Titans trounced Oakton, on the road, 38-2 for their most convincing win against a strong opponent in five years.
As Clarke walked off the field after Game 1, that cool fall breeze finally drying the sweat from his face, I reminded him of what he and his teammates looked like, grunting in that hallway at the end of June.
“We were just envisioning this moment right here. It’s a great feeling,” he said. “Now we’ve got to move on to the next challenge, and just keep moving on. Like our coach said, this is just another stop on the train.”
I asked Grosser if at any point in his career at T.C. Williams anyone ever proposed the idea of getting the team together for pizza and screening “Remember the Titans,” and he said no one ever did. But during one of the last preseason practices, Randolph told the team some folks at the school wanted to show the players a film called “Undefeated,” the 2011 Oscar-winner for best documentary about the Manassas Tigers, a Memphis high school football team that hadn’t made the playoffs in the school’s history. So there’s no doubt some people in Alexandria were ready to take the football team’s struggles head on.
“As far as football-wise, the players working hard and getting better and trying to get into the playoffs, that reminded me of us,” Carney said about watching the film. One difference is that the Titans won their first game, while the Tigers did not. We shall see if the Titans manage to follow the Tigers into the playoffs.
Williams (some say he is the head coach-in-waiting) and Randolph will be directly affected by a successful team this year, so they have plenty of motivation to see this year as the first of many winning campaigns. He and Randolph will remain after the key players from this year’s team move on. It will be up to them to mold another winning team next summer, to identify a new Carney or Clarke, and to make sure Holland continues to make progress.
“Tradition never graduates,” Williams says. “But we have to create our own legacy, because in 2030, they’re going to be looking at the 2013 kids.”
While it was just one game, and Oakton may not be the team it was last year, the Titans look to have the potential to break the playoff drought. Also, a change in the state’s playoff system will help them, too. The Fairfax County, Arlington County and Alexandria schools used to play in the state’s Northern Region, and eight of the 15 Class AAA Division 6 schools (of which the Titans were one) made the playoffs. This year, those same teams, along with 11 others (some taken from the former AAA Division 5, others from the dissolved Northwest Region) will compete for 16 playoff berths in a new Class 6A North. Consequently, 61 percent of the eligible schools will make the playoffs this season, compared to 53 percent last year. Further number crunching by Patrick Hutchinson, who runs VHSL-reference.com, which takes schedule strength into consideration when ranking teams, had the Titans as the 13th best team in 6A-North based on last year’s record.
“If they don’t get in this year, there’s a real problem,” says an area coach when asked about how the realignment would affect both the Titans and his team.
Before the season began, Hutchinson said the odds of T.C. Williams making the playoffs this year were 2-to-1, which equates to a 50-percent chance, significantly better than in past years.
Asked about whether he’ll be at T.C. Williams until he’s 60, Avery Williams hesitates before answering. He lives in Maryland and drives 45 minutes one way to get to the school. He wants to be a head coach himself someday. An opportunity might crop up somewhere else. But there’s an opportunity for a coach or two at T.C. Williams. Sure, players win games, but the coaches establish a tradition and maintain it. If they stick around for a decade or two and create a winning program, they get remembered. They might even get a movie made.