At halftime of Saturday’s DC inaugural “state” high school football game, coach Aazaar Abdul-Rahim gave his Friendship Collegiate Academy players a kind of mid-term grade for the first half. “C, probably a C- type of feeling I got inside of me right now,” he says. “It’s up to you guys to get this @#*% to an A.”
It didn’t matter that the Friendship was winning 22-6. Abdul-Rahim wanted perfection, especially since it took nearly a decade just to get invited to this game.
The DC high school football championship is traditionally played on Thanksgiving day; the Turkey Bowl pits the two best traditional public high school teams in the city against each other. Friendship Collegiate, which opened its doors in 1997, has never qualified for the championship game because it’s a public charter. Friendship is publicly funded, but freed from some of the traditional rules and regulations that govern traditional schools.
But traditions are changing in DC, where 41% of the nearly 75,000 public school students attend public charter schools, a percentage that is second highest in the nation after New Orleans. With traditional public schools generally graduating only about half of their students, scores of parents around DC have turned to charters in hopes of seeing better results. It’s a shift that has produced some academic progress, and now is forcing some changes on the playing field too. The rise of Friendship’s football team became impossible for local high school athletic officials, and DC mayor Vincent Gray, to ignore. “This recognizes the status of the charters,” says Gray. “It recognizes their role and importance, and this is the beginning of a state championship game, that will involve the charters every year.”
Gray arrived at the game just before halftime, and made his way over to the Friendship Collegiate sideline to watch for a few minutes. The mayor mostly went unnoticed, obscured by the collection of 150 or so players, former players, coaches, and friends who paced the Friendship sideline. Behind them, bleachers were packed with a few thousand students, teachers, parents, cheerleaders and graduates decked out in the school’s signature blue and gold colors.
The meaning of the moment was not lost on Friendship coach Abdul-Rahim. In the huddle he reminded his players that more than a football game was at hand. “This day ain’t about ya’ll,” he said. “This day isn’t about just this championship. This day is about the people behind ya’ll. And the legacy that ya’ll about to leave for them.”
Rahim was referring to the journey Friendship has been on since it opened 15 years ago, in a former public school building overrun by drug dealers. Around 65% of Friendship students qualify as low income, and 99% are black. Abdul-Rahim, a former Division-1 football player from the DC area, started working as a guidance counselor at the newly opened Friendship, which sits four blocks away from where he grew up. He had to curb his athletic ambitions until Friendship chairman Donald Hense let him start a football program. Hense admits it took some convincing. “It didn’t go over very well,” Hense says. “I was like, ‘why?’ After he started to talk about scholarships and things of that nature, I changed my mind. You’ve got to come at me with academics. The sports thing doesn’t fly on its own.”
Abdul-Rahim says the first Friendship football players different than today’s team. “What it looked like, was 20 to 25 kids, no one over 200 pounds,” he says. “The lineman were probably as big as the wide receivers. Everyone looked skinny who hadn’t played football before.”
Friendship lost a lot of games that first year. But the real goal of the football team — getting kids to college–was taking shape. Hense says he could have cared less if his football team won a game. “When you start to have 19, 20 kids going to school out of northeast Washington on full room and board tuition scholarships,” Hense says, “you’re talking about making a huge difference in a lot of kids lives.”
Last year Abdul-Rahim had his most successful season yet, off the field: 19 graduating seniors secured scholarships, more than double the number of any traditional public school in the city. This year he’s confident at least 15 of his 24 graduating seniors will get full rides. Friendship is also producing star players: two were recently selected as All Americans, and will play in a national game showcasing the country’s best talent.
The school has no home field; its locker rooms that are makeshift storage containers. A patch of dirt behind the school doubles as the practice field. Abdul-Rahim uses the long bus rides to places like Chicago, West Virginia, and New Jersey as motivation. “We don’t preach excuses,” he says. “At the end of the day in life, no one cares about your excuse. People are going to hear your story, and feel bad a little bit, and then they move on. So it’s almost like, you have to persevere, regardless.”
Overall, Friendship has near perfect graduation rate. Its college acceptance rate for graduating seniors — nearly 100% — had made the school an academic standout. Now the school has football bragging rights, after it demolished Dunbar, a traditional public school, 48-12, in the state title game. With the inaugural championship secured, and the satisfaction of knowing his team is truly DCs best, Abdul-Rahim can now return to focusing on his real job, getting his players into college. “A lot of our kids get lost in their block, just their way of life,” he says. “The buck just doesn’t stop in DC. There are so many bigger and better things.”