Payin' the Bills
Bill Wettstein, who has
done some writing for community papers in the Northwest Philly area, has become an
important member of our website crew. We appreciate his efforts.
Everything happened so fast. One minutemomentum and anticipation of victory, the nexta last-minute scoring chance falls into a frozen reality of dismay. The 2004 Eagles of George Washington High School lost the citys inaugural PIAA Class AAAA Eastern semi-final football game a few weeks ago to a quicker and technically superior team from Easton. What they managed to accomplish in defeat however was as monumental as it was historical. By extending beyond undemanding talent, the Eagles presented a genuine benchmark for achievement that will assist any team on and off the field. In the days after the loss, players Jerry Butler, Chuck Hughes, David Gonser, Dominique Curry, Mikal Sabree and head coach Ron Cohen reflected on a year of glory and grief.
We got the mud kicked out of us. Jerry Butler
As the rest of the dejected and soggy 2003 Eagles plodded off the rain-drenched field following a second straight Public League championship defeat to arch-rival Frankford, then-junior running back Jerry Butler stood motionless while the cold rain only added to an endless stream of tears. What had begun a season earlier as an offensive showcase ended with a stunning crossroad. Steer straight or veer closer to the systems employed by their non-public and suburban counterparts?
We all come from this area and losing builds up. said Hughes. If something isnt working, take upon yourself to change it, Butler said. We made sure everyone was [academically] eligible every week. If someone was struggling, we worked to get them help. We needed to get stronger as players, so in early January we all agreed to make the weight room mandatory," said Gonser.
Along with the newfound solidarity, each gained a mutual respect for the others' abilities thereby decreasing the chances of a one-dimensional offense and laying a foundation for leaders to emerge. Despite the fact the Eagles had been proclaimed Public League champions months earlier, many considered them little more than sacrificial lambs for the eventual state champion. The offensive playmakers took the criticism to heart and, while the team was clearly motivated, some had doubts.
We can pass, we will pass and well get further than anyone thinks, Hughes recalled. After the weight room, wed go into the gym and play catch for 15, even five, minutes, which gave us chemistry. Once the coaches saw our drive, they opened the playbook. When we were in the weight room, I wondered; how can this work? said Sabree. We cant get big headed.
He will walk again.Jerry Butler
In preparation for the upcoming season, senior Jadrien J.J. Reynolds suffered a broken neck in a preseason scrimmage and remains paraplegic. Unlike season-ending injuries, whereby of a normal way of life, regardless of football, can be restored, Reynolds condition comes with a sobering reminder of the true risks of the game for anyone on the roster. As last reported by the Daily News, optimism continues to be on the rise for good reason. Words of encouragement from ex-Penn State player and recovery victim Adam Taliaferro have helped relieve the anxieties about reconfiguring just about every daily task we take for granted. According to J.J.s stepfather, Bob Knight, the stress associated with such a misfortune has taken a toll on the family at times, but the continued therapy and widespread support for J.J. has been exceptional since the initial injury.
When they wheeled him across the field [at the PL championship game], I just broke down because all I could think about was the possibility he may not walk again, said Knight. His sprits are really high and hes improved a lot. He has a lot of movement in his upper body and feeling in his lower body. J.J.s really optimistic and he believes hes going to walk and do the things he used to be able to do. Hes looking for other options and starting to explore. Hes been a coach for this team, analyzing plays, telling the players the mistakes theyre makinghe has a future in coaching.
Another option according to Butler, who still maintains daily visits with his long time friend, will be to continue the aviation studies that attracted him to the school in the first place. Through this dose of reality, those close to Reynolds have come to understand how important quality of life will be before and after their fallen comrade regains the ability to walk. From that, a newfound sense of purpose beyond athletics has come into focus.
Hes been the inspiration behind our seasonnever take anything in life for granted, Butler said. This team had a will not to lose that came from a deep loyalty. J.J. has that will not to losehes not going to sit in a wheelchair forever. Well move on, but well never forget.
Having made easy work of the first three opponents, the Eagles rolled into Deacon Field for their first big test of will against a Germantown Academy squad on the verge of being the co-Inter-Ac titleholders. By this point, the system was holding steady, while the last vestiges of the primary showcase were being transformed into leadership. After the LaSalle game, the rest of the team had given Butler a less than stellar review of his effort. The player that used to break eight tackles a game seemed to be getting tripped by arm tackles.
My teammates helped me with that, said Butler. I didnt need to be all world. I was just trying to do everything.
Needing to release the energy to another source though, Butlers began to ask more of himself and others. Clinging to a 7-0 lead, he and teammate Jelani Washington-Crum carried a conflict over an earlier missed opportunity into the picnic area during halftime. To add to the problematic situation, most of the Eagles' defensive personnel, having already underestimated their opponent, attempted to gather and discuss adjustments. What transpired was a maturation process of leadership.
In 2003, we had a couple of fights and thats what I was afraid of this season, said Gonser. We had our conflicts as all teams do, but we were together on the field. Thats something a lot of teams didnt have and wish they did, said Sabree.
On the first drive of the third quarter, Washington-Crum came up with a crucial acrobatic catch against the sideline to set up the second touchdown and answered again with a crushing hit on the ensuing kickoff return. While pitching a second half shutout, Stefan Ruff, Raymond Roy, Hughes, Sabree and Gonser, demonstrated how simple acts of responsibility translated into stunning results for everyone. In one instance, the Patriots came to the line in a five-receiver set but, as signals were being called, the Eagles left a receiver uncovered. High atop the Deacon Field observation tower, volunteer assistant coach Doug Gunther yelled repeatedly in desperation; Roy, take the slot [receiver]. Seconds before the ball was snapped, the request was heard and the shift made. Result of the playincomplete pass.
With unrestrained enthusiasm and confidence, the Eagles' week eight performance against the rival Pioneers represented a system at peak condition. Jelani Washington-Crum delivered another punishing special teams tackle to set the tone and the gap responsibilities executed by the defensive unit were remarkable for this level of football. By the middle of the first quarter, Frankford was clearly frustrated with their offense production and had trouble just gaining first downs for the rest of game. The blocking by the offensive line, along with receivers Curry and Roy, left holes so obvious Butler never needed a fourth gear on any of his running plays. While this bout with near-perfection was interesting, the growing maturity level revealed after the big win was the real story. Counter productive atmospheres still exist where petty bickering, broad assumptions and misplaced machismo sets the pecking order among players. The consequent contempt and self-pity that results serves no purpose in the scope of the activity. Instead, the Eagle players generated an air of self-accountability thus lifting this burden, however slight, from a coaching staff prone to playing the heavy in the classroom and on the field. Following the decisive win, a pair of the key role players (among others) walked out late for practice with excuses at the ready. After the head coach instinctively declared the first "run to the gate" and back Butler, Hughes, Gonser and any other leader within earshot divvied the rest. Did individual statistics dictate these players command a position of higher authority? Nope, exactly the opposite. Their unselfish desire to reverse the outcome of that rainy night in December required every player place an emphasis on the responsibilities of the common goal.
The 2004 Public League Champions entered the citys inaugural PIAA semi-final game with high intensity and poise. On the games first play, Butler ran for four yards and Easton was penalized 15-yards for hitting him late. They sold-out on Washington offensive coordinator John McAneneys belly run on the next, and by the time everyone took their eyes off Jerome Lewis, Butler had slipped though the McFillin-Patton-Nolan crease and was already 15-yards downfield. After the resulting 38-yard scamper, Hughes completed the three-play, 59-yard touchdown drive with his usual short yardage sneak. Time of possession: 33 seconds. Easton matched Washington and moved to within a point of a tie. Yet another test of resolve determined the games outcome, to which Easton prevailed with tools that were a little more refined.
"Were disappointed that we let certain areas of the game get into our heads and break us down, said Butler. We never let that happen before.
Considering what was accomplished however, Washingtons will not to lose wasnt going to be determined by a scoreboard or clock. The unwavering resiliency and conduct they displayed ensures that their place in Public League history remains timeless. What we witnessed was a talented team that harnessed the qualities of leadership, accountability and selflessness so a successful system could function and, in the process, transcended athletics.
Programs cant always beat athletes, but when you combine athletes with a program youll have a dominant team, said Butler. That was our edge this season It was great to set an example, everyone got a highlight film, Hughes said. We didnt care who got the ball, said Curry.
Statistically, six different players posted more receiving yards this season than the 2003 team leader and six players scored at least two points in the Public League championship game, as opposed to none in the 2003 game. Compared to the 11 games in 2003, Butler gained 394 additional yards in 2004 with seven fewer carries. Granted, the Northeast section of the city has captured the bulk of available athleticism for quite some time and the privilege of playing for a state championship will probably mean defeating one of the multi-talented Public North teams. As the Eagles demonstrated however, this shouldnt prevent anyone from coming away from an extra-curricular activity without a sense of achievement.
Whatever team comes out of the PL championship will represent the league well, said Butler.
The character these young adults developed by understanding the balance of athletics, academics and life will benefit them far longer than the memories of touchdowns past. While the team belongs to the players, the forged Washington tradition belongs to Head Coach Ron Cohen. Some teams, like Frankford, already have it, others had it and lost it and others, like Overbrook, are on the trail. Before Cohen arrived, the school had little to no football tradition. Through a strenuous and dedicated effort to obtain much-needed capital for the athletic program and an uncanny knack for recruiting volunteers, he has built George Washington football into one of most successful programs in recent years.
It all starts at the top, said Cohen. The NFL program weve entered into has brought needed money for our program, but the efforts of our volunteer academic adviser has made sure we kept up the requirements so it can continue.
According to Cohen, one of his prized volunteers, Kwesi Solomon, is the epitome of giving something back. This one-time special education student overcame his disabilities to earn a pair of degrees from Villanova University, where he was a two-year starter along the defensive line. He turned down an Arena Football League contract and other career opportunities to honor an institution that did so much at a critical juncture in his life. Solomons football expertise helped players like Lance Gribbin and Demitrius Wilson to excel on an offensive line that entered the 2004 season with only two returning starters and his life experience gave David Gonser the tough love he needed at a time when he couldve gone in a negative direction.
He was riding me pretty good in the hallway one day and we almost came to blows, said Gonser. I realized I had an attitude problem and he, and everyone here, helped me. That was important. I dont know where I wouldve ended up without them.
High school football maintains a higher spectator value than say the school chess or debate clubs. However, the basic purpose remains the sameto give students an outlet to expand a successful attitude and give parents the comfort of knowing where their children are for three hours after school.
Versatility in school changes a lot of things, said Butler.
Tradition, caring and hard work increases the chances that alumni like Bruce Perry, Jameel McClain and Zimier McCloud, all of whom are highly revered by the current players, return to instill the positive attributes theyve received. As a tribute to what hes gained, Butler, in a final act of selflessness, was certain of his 2005 commitment to the University of Wisconsin weeks prior to the recent announcement, but decided to withhold his choice from public discussion so scouts could see the rest of the team. While the accomplishments of football seasons past will fade into archives, let us remember the 2004 George Washington Eagles, who reminded us what people can do doesnt replace knowing who they are.