Unchartered Territory D.C.'s best football team belongs to a charter school with no field, no locker room, and no invitation to compete for a title

Friendship Without Benefits: As a charter school squad, the Knights don’t even get their own field.
Photo by Darrow Montgomery

The best high school football team in the city has no league, no home field, and no practice field to call its own. Not even a locker room.

“Welcome to Friendship Beach!” says Friendship Collegiate Academy head coach Aazaar Abdul-Rahim, laughing with a little embarrassment as a couple of visitors survey Fort Mahan Park, the grassless knoll that serves as his squad’s rehearsal space.

Friendship’s main building, housed in a former middle school adjacent to Fort Mahan, doesn’t have a room big enough to fit Abdul-Rahim’s team. So every afternoon the players enter a set of grim Mobile Mini Storage Systems units to change into practice wear. The players’ gym bags, shoes, and other belongings are piled up amid broken glass and fast-food trash outside the graffiti-laden containers. During drills, banged up Day-Glo -orange traffic barrels fill in for tackling dummies.

It’s hard to imagine kids at a suburban school being forced to deal with this plight.

But if the amenities come up short, Abdul-Rahim’s program isn’t lacking for human resources. A lot of D.C. public schools have trouble even fielding a varsity squad. But Abdul-Rahim estimates his Friendship Knights will start the season with “about 120” players, enough for full freshman, JV, and varsity teams.

“We’ve got some talent,” Abdul-Rahim says.

No need to take his word for it. ESPN has tabbed Eddie Goldman, a senior lineman who looks taller than his roster height of 6-foot-4 and heavier than his listed weight of 307 pounds, as the second-most desired high school senior in the whole country. “The country’s best nose guard is going to make some program extremely happy,” declared a detailed scouting report from Mike Frank’s Irish Sports Daily, a blog for Notre Dame football obsessives.

Friendship also has Albert Reid, a cornerback who’s already committed to play next year with West Virginia. And Douglas Moore, another defensive back who’s accepted an offer from VMI.

Abdul-Rahim’s team has so many players with Division I potential, in fact, that college recruiters are focusing on Friendship the way British paparazzi focus on Pippa Middleton.

Abdul-Rahim became Friendship’s first and still only varsity football head coach in 2004. So he remembers the days when teams around here took his squad lightly. “One year, we lost to Cardozo 40-0, and the next week Cardozo lost to Dunbar 69-0,” he says. “Everybody wanted us to be their homecoming game.”

Nobody sought that honor this year. A preseason poll from DC Sports Fan, a local website that tracks the prep football scene, lists Friendship as the top team in D.C. proper. In the entire region, only Our Lady of Good Counsel, an incredibly moneyed Olney school loaded with blue-chip recruits, ranks higher.

Along with not having a practice space, Friendship lacks a home stadium. AbdulRahim, who’s in charge of finding fields for his team to play on, doesn’t mind going on the road.

“Most seasons we don’t have more than three games where we’re called the home team, and they’re at three different fields,” he says. “If we’re the home team, that means finding a field that’s not being used, then paying to rent the field and hiring security and paying for cleanup. It’s easier to just get on a bus, show up, and play. All our games are on the road, and that’s fine with me.”

This Sunday morning, Friendship will be on the road again: The team will be in Cincinnati facing Taft Tech in a contest that will be broadcast live on ESPN.

Yet the season opener in Ohio will also mark the closest thing Friendship football will have to a real home game. For the team’s first-ever ESPN appearance, the Friendship administration is throwing a viewing party for students, faculty, and fans inside the school building.

“This is a major mark in our history, absolutely fantastic for us,” says Barry Lofton, director of corporate and community relations for the school.

Typically, high school athletic programs gain notoriety by winning titles. But Friendship has no football titles available to win. The team’s too talented to play the city’s other charter schools, says Don Cole, commissioner of the Washington Charter School Athletic Association. “Friendship does its own thing,” says Cole. “They don’t schedule other charter schools. They’re good.”

Friendship’s athletic teams are sanctioned by D.C. Public Schools, and its players must abide by the same eligibility rules that apply to those at other schools. But despite overtures from Friendship administrators, the school is also being kept out of the city’s traditional public school league, the D.C. Interscholastic Athletic Association. So there will be no bid to the Turkey Bowl, the traditional Thanksgiving Day game that allegedly crowns the best public school football squad in the city.

In a lot of ways, Friendship’s football dominance shows how charter schools have arrived. Charters now educate nearly 40 percent of D.C.’s public school kids; Mayor Vince Gray has promised that the schools will get equal treatment compared to the traditional public schools whose administrators answer to him. But the Turkey Bowl lockout—among other insults—shows how far some individual charters still have to go.

“We’d like to play more DCIAA teams, to have some playoff round, and some opportunity to play in the Turkey Bowl,” says Lofton. “We want a seat at that table. There’s no need to look at this as us versus them, or [DCPS] versus charter. All our young people come from the same community.”

Friendship’s prominence will likely get folks talking about reforming the system to allow all schools to compete for the city title; if the Knights play up to their potential, the chatter will get loud.

Lofton welcomes such talk. He says he’s spoken with D.C. government officials about changing the rules to allow charter schools to compete for city titles, specifically the Turkey Bowl, and is optimistic. (Acting DCPS Athletic Director Willie Jackson did not return emails or phone calls for comment.)

But Abdul-Rahim lets folks in the school’s main office dwell on those matters. “If ESPN has taken notice of what we’re doing, I don’t have time for the foolishness in D.C.,” he says. Without a Turkey Bowl to aim for, he’s decided the best way to build up buzz is to crank out college athletes. Abdul-Rahim says he and his staff put together highlights for every Friendship player, sending the videos to recruiters.

“It’s a full-time job in itself,” Abdul-Rahim says of connecting his players to folks who can get them a free ride to college. “Without championships, we measure ourselves in how many scholarships we get for our kids.”

Last winter, on the NCAA’s national signing day for football players, 14 Friendship students sat on a school stage before the whole student body, faculty members, and assorted parents and announced at which colleges they’d be playing football. The ceremony was highlighted by quarterback Percee Goings’ declaration for Columbia and running back Malcolm Crockett’s opting for Pitt. Lofton’s office put out a press release about the event.

The scholarship bonanzas motivate the underclassmen to step up their game, says Abdul-Rahim. And they get parents in the city to start thinking about how to get their kids into Friendship.

“The school isn’t a hard sell for me now,” he says. “The football program has taken on a life of its own.”

There’s even a possibility that at least one traditional local powerhouse is avoiding the current Friendship team. For the past four years, Friendship has played DeMatha Catholic High School, which as of last year had more alums in the NFL than any other school in the country. But DeMatha, the region’s most successful football squad of the past couple decades, doesn’t have Friendship on its 2011 schedule.

Abdul-Rahim admits that he’s got an open date he’d like to fill, and that he would like to play DeMatha this season. But he will neither confirm nor deny rumors that DeMatha is ducking his squad.

“Nobody wants to lose to a charter school,” he says. “That’s all I know.”

Read Cheap Seats Daily every weekday at washingtoncitypaper.com/blogs/citydesk.

Our Readers Say

This is the best school in the DMV... A Diamond in the Rough!
Great article! Dave McKenna covers and reports on the DC Public Schools athletic program better than any of the local sportswriters in the Washington metropolitan area. The Washington Post at one time provided coverage for the District, but now they are focused on schools closer to Baltimore and Richmond more so than the District. Having said that, the football program at Friendship Collegiate will continue to flourish under Abdul-Rahim and one can only hope that they will soon be able to acquire the proper facilities to build and sustain their program.
Coach Rahim & staff bust their behinds. They expect no less from the students. Their concern isn't limited to the ones on the field. Thank you for motivating the Babies!
Go Aazaar!!!! You making Carroll real proud.
Yaaaay Go Aazar! Great Job.
Awesome job Aazaar!! Keep up the good work! Carroll Lions Alum!
Great article, Mr. McKenna. How can a charter school build a facility for a football team if it can't get funds from the DC government? Is there a school nearby with a football facility that can be used?

I'm not worried about Turkey Bowl titles for Friendship, honestly. They got a kid into COLUMBIA UNIVERSITY. Screw the Turkey Bowl. That young man's getting a six-figure education and all he's got to do is play some football, stay out of trouble and hit the books. And he's got an Ivy League degree. Columbia not only doesn't come to the DCPS for talent, they definitely aren't breaking down the doors for DC Charter school student-athletes, so it's a great accomplishment for the young man as well as the school and community.

Before DeMatha built their basketball facility that honors Morgan Wooten, they didn't exactly have the Taj Mahal of HS hoops to go with their reputation on the court. Do they even play football on campus at DeMatha? I know their home games are played at the Sports and Learning Complex near Fed Ex and other places before that.

St. Anthony's in Jersey City has one of the best basketball programs in the nation. And even in hoops-crazy New Jersey with the ability to put a basketball court on a small footprinte in the city? All their games are on the road. They still kick a LOT of butt.

Sometimes a nice gym and the chance to win titles isn't everything there is. With all the problems facing kids in the city these days, I'm happy to see some of them take advantage of the opportunity to get that college degree, maybe even some grad-school. Having a nice gym or field to play on? That's "today" and you can't spend that. Or put it in the fridge or feed your family with it. A HS championship? A Turkey Bowl? Meh. A college education at a four-year school if you take full advantage of it? That's all that matters.

One quibble, though: I doubt DeMatha's ducking Friendship. And their coach has enough problems as it is replacing a legendary coach. All due respect to Friendship, but DeMatha better worry about how to catch back up to Good Counsel. It's not Elijah Brooks' job to increase the shine on Friendship's program. Heck, if they do their job with the schedule they've got lined up, they'll have their own reputation to back up. They won't be the underdog anymore.
Go Knights! Sunday gameday on ESPNU. DC fans know you are #1!
A lot of D.C. public schools have trouble even fielding a varsity squad. But Abdul-Rahim estimates his Friendship Knights will start the season with “about 120” players, enough for full freshman, JV, and varsity teams THIS IS THE REASON EASTERN CANT FIELD A TEAM AND SPINGARN TALENT POOL IS SUBPAR. SO WHY DON’T THEY RENT FIELD SPACE OR LOCKER ROOM SPACE FROM EASTERN? IS THERE ANY RULES AGAINST THAT?

THEY MUST HEAVILY RECRUIT POP WARNER STANDOUTS FOR THEIR TALENT POOL. IM GLAD THEY ARE GIVING THOSE YOUNG MEN SOME SHINE AT PLAYING AT THE NEXT LEVEL INSTEAD OF MEASURING THEIR SUCCESS BY THE AMOUNT OF ‘SHIPS THEY BRING IN. DCPS BETTER GET THEIR ACT TOGETHER AND GET AN ATHLETIC DIRECTOR THAT KNOWS A LIL SOMETHING INSTEAD OF THE LACKEYS THAT HAVENT EVEN KEPT THE SEAT WARM ENOUGH FOR THE NEXT GUY.

AGREE WITH ROB’S #2 COMMENT.
I couldn't be more proud of our team of student athletes and the coaching staff. It's a good feeling to hear echoes in the local and national media of what we've known and been championing for quite some time now: "the odds do not excuse you from the pursuit of excellence." I had the pleasure of helping organize the signing day ceremony and agree with Coach's metric of college opportunity and scholarships. But the unnecessary exclusion from competition and inequitable facilities should be brought to an immediate end.

With that said, it is my hope that excellence will now begin to improve the odds for our students--for all students. The super minority of children enrolled in charter schools don't deserve a second-class citizenship. The field/facilities issue isn't a difficult one to resolve. But there are still those that would spitefully rather see public land (adjacent to a public school) languish into a blighted community hazard while the some of city's most celebrated athletes change clothes in a metal box and play home-field hopscotch.

This isn't about football, nor is it solely about Friendship--it's about fairness--and everyone in this disenfranchised city should have an interest in fighting for that. We teach our students about teamwork and sportsmanship, but it's a lesson better learned by example. I hope Mayor Gray, Chairman Brown and others will now join us at the table. We've been keeping their seats warm.

Thanks to Dave McKenna for an insightful piece and congrats to the Knights on their victory today!


PS

@DC Dave: DeMatha would make a great perennial rivalry for our Friendship Collegiate Academy Knights (especially once they stop misspelling our name). But they went from a 33 point win (45-12) in the 09/10 school to year barely escaping by a field goal last year (35-32). I'm pretty sure that got mentioned to Coach Brooks during the scheduling process.
I hope these guys do well. I might take in a couple games. Here is a schedule. Gonzaga this Sunday. Anybody know a location?

http://www.maxpreps.com/high-schools/duXMYLUNg0uGErcJ46SbSQ/friendship-collegiate-academy-knights/football/schedule.htm

17 games in 11 weeks sounds a bit much. The other top teams are only playing 10 or 11. Maybe they have some patsies sprinkled in there and players 23 through 120 on the depth chart get to play those games
@ The Brain,
I'm happy for Collegiate's success on the football field. As for DeMatha ducking them? They've got enough problems worrying about falling further behind Good Counsel in their own league. Friendship, in the grand scheme of things, is a non-factor.
I was at the Mt. St. Joe's game and Collegiate needs some help on offense. Eddie Goldman can't do it all. That D stays on the field WAAAAAAAAAAAAY too long and competent teams will come back in the 4th quarter.
But please continue to come up with perceived slights. The perennial underdog model works for Friendship right now. So please continue to play on the only string you have.
I did find it funny that a dozen middle-aged women tried to sneak into an away game without paying admission by carrying pom-poms and claiming that they were cheerleaders. REAL classy. You guys have kids going to Columbia and other great schools to play football? You want gold-standard recognition? Have your fans act like it and pay their way into away/neutral site games or eventually, the "us-against-the-world" thing won't be so cute anymore. Realize that when you claim an athletic team as a source of pride for a community that its not only how they perform on the field, folks claiming that team as fans need to remember they factor into the perception of the squad as well. What if ESPN cameras were there for that part of it? Grown-ups trying to sneak into a HS game without paying? Cute. Real cute.
The DMV better get prepared because the Knights are here and here to stay! And, they are getting them kids scholarships after scholarships. Believe me, from personal experience, Friendship is real and works very hard for the kids.
our football team, without a doubt is the best team in the DMV, and maybe even farther. but all credit is given to coach rahim and his staff of coaches.

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