Inside T.C. Williams that dynamic produces something dangerously close to separate-but-equal facilities. "There are no racial clashes at T.C," says Jay Blount, a Yale freshman who was president of the school's student government last year. "There is no anger, and nobody cares what your race or national origin is. But people stick with their own social class. I saw lots of black kids every day, but I hung out with my white friends, took my AP [advanced placement] classes and rowed crew."
Alexandria city manager Phil Sunderland, who sent three children through T.C. Williams, says, "T.C. tends to differentiate by class and race and social network. We have to do a better job of removing that."
T.C. Williams has lost many white athletes to private schools. Billy Schweitzer, a redshirt freshman quarterback on scholarship at Virginia, was raised in Alexandria but attended St. Stephen's & St. Agnes School there. "I grew up playing rec sports with T.C. Williams kids," says Schweitzer, "but when it comes to high school, you don't benefit athletically or academically from going there. If your parents have the means to send you to private school, you go."
Nothing, though, illustrates the struggle of the Titans football program more than its comparison with crew. Thanks to aggressive fund-raising outside the school budget by well-heeled Alexandria parents, T.C. Williams's crew operation, with its $1.3 million boathouse on the banks of the Potomac, would be the envy of many colleges. "The crew program is outstanding," says Blount. "The facilities are incredible. On a scale of one to 10, crew is a 10, and the football program is about a two."
On a warm September afternoon the T.C. Williams boys' crew coach, Mike Penn, stands on the floor of the cavernous Alexandria Schools Rowing Facility, which was built by the city for the school district in 1983. There are 25 four-and eight-oared shells in large racks, along with several double shells. A fully equipped eight-oared shell costs about $27,000, and with the help of the parent-driven Alexandria Crew Boosters, the team buys one eight-oared shell a year. The boosters sponsor six fund-raising activities each year and operate an endowment worth almost $40,000. "An awful lot of good people have given time to this program," says Penn.
On the second floor of the boathouse is a sprawling weight room that, by comparison, humbles the football team's musty basement facility. Dozens of T.C. rowers have gone on to row in college. There is little crossover between crew and football, despite the former's preponderance of tall, strong athletes and the latter's need for the same. Says Clayton Wynne, a 5'10", 175-pound senior rower, "The football team isn't very good, and that's part of the reason the white kids don't want to do it."
Black kids don't row, either. Penn says that of the 87 boys and 93 girls in the program, 12 are black. "I've been hassled about the lack of participation by minority kids," says Penn. "I've tried for years to get black kids to come out for crew. It's difficult breaking down stereotypes. Plus, I've had several African-American kids come to me who couldn't pass the swimming test." (The test, says Penn, requires a 100-meter swim and an unaided two-minute float.) When Penn attended a preseason football meeting, black football assistants McClain and John Morehead say they got into a heated debate with him over the lack of cross-pollination between the sports.
"To make a generalization, the crew parents represent where the money and power are," says Porterfield. "The parents in the football program are not in the same position." Therefore, the football program has had only the resources that the school provided, and those were not enough.
After his team's opening loss to Chantilly, a defeat that would be followed by three more losses by a combined score of 95-20, Riki Ellison walked out the front door of T.C. Williams High, shuffling under the weight of a heavy briefcase, an ink-jet printer (for copying game plans and play selection cards) and 30 years of history. "We're going to get this done," he said. "I'm not quitting until we do."
Ellison brings an eclectic resume to his job. Born in New Zealand, he went to high school in Arizona before playing at USC in the late '70s, when that program was producing some of the most talented college teams in history. He also played 10 years in the NFL (seven with the 49ers, three with the Los Angeles Raiders) before retiring after the '92 season. An undersized linebacker, he played on brains and guts, "and when the fight was gone, it was gone," he says. After retirement Ellison lived for four years in New Zealand with his wife and four children, playing rugby and getting the NFL out of his system. In 1996, divorced, he returned to the U.S. and took a consulting job with Lockheed Martin, the defense and aerospace company, and moved to northern Virginia.