Sirlee Monzey isn't old enough to remember Herschel Walker. Nor are any of his teammates on the White Oak Warriors, a Silver Spring, Md.-based youth club. But their coach, Mike Wills, is.
"Sirlee always keeps his head up and hits the hole with his shoulders square," says Wills. "Like Herschel Walker."
It's not just the kid's running form that reminds Wills, 35, of Walker. When Monzey touches the ball, the results are often Walkeresque, too. For example: On White Oak's first play from scrimmage against Baltimore's Northwest Bulldogs on Saturdayat the Maryland state semifinals for Pop Warner squadsMonzey went off tackle for 60 yards and a touchdown. The Warriors went on to a 19-6 win, with Northwest's only score coming on the game's last play, long after Monzey, who is also a linebacker and the team's defensive star, had gone to the bench.
The Warriors' win sets up this weekend's playoff between White Oak and Northwood, another Baltimore squad. Northwood is Pop Warner's two-time defending national champion in the midget class, for 11- to 14-year-olds. White Oak won the national championship last season in the junior midget (10- to 12-year-olds) division, and Pop Warner officials say it was the first time that teams from the same state association won national titles in the same year.
Wills coached White Oaks' junior midget champions last year, and many players on his 2003 team were also on that title squad. So while only state honors are officially at stake in Saturday's White Oak-Northwood game, it's being viewed by the combatants as the de facto national championship. A crowd of 2,000 is expected. Some will come just to see Monzey, says Wills.
Monzey has been playing for Wills for three seasons. "A friend of mine just saw him standing on a corner and asked the boy if he'd ever played football. He said no. The rest is history," says Wills.
According to Wills, plenty of players and coaches contributed to last year's national title. But without Monzey, he admits, the glories wouldn't have come.
"The heart, the speed, the way he's built, everything," Wills says. "You can't teach these things, can't coach these things. He's unreal. People hear about him and come to see him play, and they don't even have to ask which kid he is or what number he is. They can tell as soon as they look on the field. It's that obvious."
Andrew Smith, president of the Northwood Football League, says he made the drive from his Baltimore home down to Silver Spring last year to see what the fuss was about. Now, he's among those making the fuss.
"I don't even know what the kid's name is, but I call him 'the Nigerian Nightmare,'" says Smith, "because he gives anybody who tries to tackle him nightmares. And when he tackles people, you could hear it up in the stands." (Monzey was born in Liberia, but "Liberian Nightmare" doesn't alliterate quite so well.)
Smith has been in youth football in Baltimore for 30 years. He says the only kid he's ever seen who could match Monzey's skill at such an early age was Tommy Polley, who played Pop Warner ball with Northwood through the early '90s. Polley went on to Florida State and is now a third-year linebacker with the St. Louis Rams.
No matter how the White Oak-Northwood tilt turns out, another competition involving Monzey will also require Wills' time and energies. Many major private schools in the area have entered into a sort of sweepstakes for the eighth-grader's services. To win, they have to go through Wills.
That contest brought Elliot Uzelac, the head coach of St. John's College High School, to White Oak Middle School one Friday to watch the club practice.
Uzelac has been head coach at the Naval Academy and an assistant coach with major NCAA football programs including Maryland, Ohio State, Michigan, and Coloradoso he's been around athletes. Yet this seasoned hand doesn't try to hide his glee when he catches his first glimpses of Monzey at play. On a sweep around left end, Monzey lends a defender with a smooth, powerful stiff arm, garnering a loud "ooh" from Uzelac. Less than a minute later, Monzey hurdles two would-be tacklers on an off-tackle dash, generating an "aah" from the suitor. Throughout his ooh- and aah-inspiring moves, Monzey's head stays up, his eyes look straight ahead, and his shoulders remain perfectly square. True to Wills' billing, the kid ran like
Upon being introduced to Wills on the middle-school field, Uzelac says he's only recently been made aware of the White Oak club. "But I'm going to start living" at White Oak workouts, Uzelac tells Wills. For now, according to Wills, the St. John's coach has offered three scholarships to the private Catholic school. "He said there's one for Sirlee and any two others I picked," says Wills.
The White Oak coach says he's no longer fazed by such offers. Neither are White Oak parents.
"The high school coaches have been coming here all year," says one father, chuckling at Uzelac's loud reactions to the smooth moves of the bluest of White Oak's blue chips. "I know why St. John's wants Sirlee, and why everybody wants Sirlee. If St. John's gets him, they won't lose. Whoever gets him, they won't lose. He's a man. A 13-year-old man."
After practice, Wills and his assistant coaches stick around on the dark, unlit field to make sure every kid has a ride home. Those who don't get divvied up among the adults.
"I got Sirlee," says Wills. Dave McKenna