The campus of J.E.B. Stuart High School in Falls Church is deserted except for about 50 boys waiting next to the bleachers. It’s almost 4 on an August afternoon, and the temperature hovers near 100 degrees.
The kids make room for football coach Roy Ferri and five assistants as they walk out of the gym. Ferri is wearing a white T-shirt that says J.E.B. STUART RAIDERS on the front and GET A DAY BETTER!! on the back.
“It’s not too late,” he says with a smile, daring the boys to quit before they’ve even started. “It’s pretty hot out here.”
The young men attend one of the Washington area’s most diverse high schools, and almost all of them are just learning to play football. On this year’s roster are boys whose families are from Palestine, the Philippines, Jordan, Bolivia, Morocco, and Sudan. A junior lineman’s family fled Sierra Leone’s civil war five years ago. A Hispanic running back spent all summer lifting weights, trying to add muscle to his five-foot-eight frame.
Today is the beginning of two-a-day practices, a ritual that marks the start of high-school football season across the country. For the Stuart Raiders, one of the losingest football teams in Northern Virginia, this first practice offers a chance for redemption.
Stuart yearbooks from the 1960s show rows and rows of young white men in blazers and ties. Most of the girls wear pearl necklaces.
Named after a Confederate cavalry leader in the Civil War, J.E.B. Stuart High School was founded in 1959. In its early years, the public school was virtually all white. But as more immigrants moved to Northern Virginia in the 1980s and ’90s, Stuart’s population changed.
Today, about 670 of Stuart’s 1,674 kids were born outside the United States. Eighty-one countries are represented by the students, two-thirds of whom speak a primary language other than English.
Recent editions of the Stuart yearbook look like a Benetton ad—among last year’s students, 678 identified themselves as Hispanic, 326 as white, 284 as Asian or Pacific Islander, 157 as African or African-American, 103 as Middle Eastern, and 56 as multiracial or “other.”
Stuart’s location—between Leesburg and Columbia pikes in Fairfax County—has fostered the school’s transformation. A diverse collection of neighborhoods feeds into it, from million-dollar houses overlooking Lake Barcroft to low-rent apartments in Culmore, where gangs have made headlines.
Stuart has the largest high-school English for Speakers of Other Languages program in the county. It also has the county’s highest free-and-reduced-lunch rate—56 percent. The football team mirrors the school. The boys speak Arabic, Urdu, Tagalog, Vietnamese, Spanish, Amharic, Mandarin, and more. “With all the different religions we have,” Coach Ferri says, “somebody is missing practice to go to church every single day of the week.”
Stuart football hasn’t always been terrible. A banner hanging in the gym declares that the school has been district champion eight times and made it to the Virginia state semifinals twice. But the most recent year on the banner is 1994, the year some kids on this year’s team were born.
When Roy Ferri agreed to come back to Stuart to try to resurrect the program in January 2008, he told the boys that his goal was to win a district championship. He entered them in summer camps and organized weightlifting and conditioning programs.
Ferri also set out to change the mindset that had become ingrained in Stuart football. He wanted to bury the bad attitudes and forget the embarrassing losses. He wanted all of them—the administration, players, coaches, alumni—to stop making excuses. So he filled a three-by-eight-foot plywood casket with old game tapes and equipment and invited his players to a funeral. The inscription on top of the casket read BAD KARMA: 1995-2008. GONE 4EVER.
Roy Ferri can’t remember a time when he wasn’t coaching. Besides football, he’s taught jump shots on the basketball court and baton handoffs on the track.
The son of an accountant and stay-at-home mom, Ferri grew up in North Arlington and went to Catholic schools. At Bishop O’Connell High School, he ran track, wrestled, and coached seventh-grade basketball. In 1983, two years after he graduated from St. Thomas University in Florida, Ferri landed a job as a receiver’s coach for the Stuart football team. Back then, winning seemed easy. Running back Charlie Garner—who went on to star at the University of Tennessee and have a long NFL career—led the team to the state semifinals in 1989.
After seven winning seasons, Ferri felt like moving on. “When you’re 30, you think you can do bigger and better things,” he says. He left to coach track and football at Lake Braddock.
In 1992, he returned to Stuart as a defensive coordinator for the football team, then became head coach in 1997. The school had changed. The easy success he remembered from the ’80s eluded him—in four seasons, Ferri won seven games and lost 33. He was let go after the 2000 season.
Ferri took a job at Centreville in Fairfax and in 2007 was named girls’ indoor-track coach of the year by the Washington Post. Meanwhile, Stuart’s football program was getting worse. The Raiders had gone winless in 2006 and 2007. From 1996 to 2007, the team had a 12-107 record.
By the time principal Pamela Jones approached Ferri about coming back to Stuart, the team was on a 24-game losing streak. Ferri had remained close to the school—when his two daughters were high-school age, he pulled them out of Catholic school and sent them to Stuart. He says he wanted them to meet kids who came from different places, to see that not everyone lives the way they live.
Ferri wasn’t sure he wanted to go back. The disappointment from his previous stint as head coach gnawed at him. He had good friends at Centreville. He liked coaching winning teams.
But he missed the Stuart kids. The kids at Lake Braddock and Centreville had role models at home, but the Stuart kids were different. At Stuart, he felt needed.