As part of his work with the company's philanthropic efforts, Ellison visited twice a week with students at T.C. Williams, and in 2000 he sought a position as an assistant football coach. He was not hired. He took a job helping coach at St. Albans School, an exclusive prep school in D.C. It got him back in the game but was unfulfilling. "I think the kids at St. Albans got something from me, but it was nothing that could change their lives," says Ellison. "They were incredibly bright, but privileged and coddled. I wanted to do something more." The T.C. Williams job opened up last winter, and this time Ellison was hired. He hasn't stopped running since.
As part of his staff, Ellison hired More-head, McClain, Tony Lee and Steve Miner, black men with high school coaching experience and with standing in the community. Meanwhile, Ellison courted influential members of the community to exert pressure on the school administration. A committee formed by departing Alexandria superintendent Herb Berg recommended that $240,000 of the T.C. Williams budget be allocated for athletics. A payment of $100,000 was eventually approved, of which $81,952 was immediately spent on football. "If I had known we needed funds for athletics two or three years ago, I would have found the money then," says Berg. "T.C. Williams should showcase football."
With those funds the weight room was refurbished, blocking sleds were replaced, the practice field was resodded and, for $15,000, the Titans spent a week bonding at Fort Pickett in central Virginia. The same committee recommended a change in the 2.0 GPA standard, so that it goes into effect in an athlete's sophomore year—in effect, giving freshmen a year to satisfy the requirements. Grades remain an issue: Ellison enticed 200 students to sign a preliminary tryout sheet last spring, and 87 of them were ineligible. Of his 36 top players 18 are at risk of falling below 2.0.
Community supporters have formed a football booster club, seeking donations on the crew model. But with financial assistance from a private foundation, Ellison has been able to start the Odyssey Program, which will provide after-hours study halls and SAT prep work, among other academic support, to football players. He also is using other incentives to try to motivate his team. Players who achieve a significant jump in their GPA will receive a pair of basketball shoes. Those who reach the highest academic goals set for them can earn a letterman's jacket. "Work for this," Ellison tells his players. "I'm hearing rumors that some of you don't bring books home. Start."
Still, the team is too small, too weak and too inexperienced to win in a strong suburban league, although last Friday night's tough 13-6 loss to West Springfield High sounded the first encouraging note of the season. "Not one player will play at any level of college ball," says Donald Futrell, a former assistant to Boone and Furman. (Ellison disagrees, and thinks that 6'2", 190-pound junior tailback Tony Hunt will play Division I-A ball.) The school administration has asked Ellison to improve the diversity of the program. Maybe it wants support from affluent parents. Maybe it would like the team picture to look more like that of the '71 Titans. "There's so much to do," says Ellison. "Change the environment, make kids proud to play football and, most important, make football a vehicle to take them somewhere in life."
In the week before the football season began, Herman Boone sat on the bleachers next to the T.C. Williams football field, recalling another time. He lives with his wife of 39 years, Carol, in a house not far from the school. It's the same house in which the windows were broken by a toilet full of feces heaved into his living room by his racist critics in that fall of 1971, the same house in which Boone now writes speeches about bringing us all together. "It makes me sad to see what's happened at T.C., with so much trouble winning and so few white boys on the team," he says. He pauses to look across the light-green late-summer grass and continues, "Football can bring your school together, it really can."
His words are a sweet, distant memory, re-formed as a wish.