News & Politics

J.E.B. Stuart: Field of Dreams

Football is the all-American sport. So what does a high-school coach do when his players come from Bolivia, Morocco, and Sudan? Answer: He teaches them never to give up.

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. 

When the rising freshmen arrive at training camp in August, the first thing they’re taught is how to put on their football pads. Then, through locker-room sessions, Ferri’s staff teaches fundamentals that most high-school football players learned in PeeWee leagues. After the kids learn to tackle, catch, block, and run, Ferri has them repeat the movements again and again. Penalties have plagued the Raiders for years.

Although most of the players have never been part of an organized team, some have grown up playing back-yard football with friends. Ferri says all the ninth-graders arrive saying they want to play quarterback or wide receiver.

“At Centreville, the players have been centers or right guards their whole life,” says Ferri. “They’re really not that good as athletes; they just know their position. Here, we’re more street-ball-esque.”

The rough-and-tumble culture of football is also new to most of the boys. Every year, players quit because they don’t understand why coaches yell at them. They don’t realize the coaches are trying to make them better.

“In America, there’s this culture—get dirty, play with pain,” says Ferri. “It’s one of those American foundations—that’s what you want to be if you’re a guy. These kids don’t come from that culture. I have to say to them: It’s important to play hurt. It’s important to be tough.”

This is junior Tijani Musa’s first year playing varsity and only his second playing football. He was scared to play his freshman year—he didn’t know the rules and worried that the violent hits he saw football players make on TV would hurt too much.

Coach Ferri calls Tijani “Chuckles” because he’s always laughing. Tijani claps his teammates on the back after a good play and tries to cheer them up if they’ve done something wrong.

As a running back last year on the junior varsity, Tijani made a lot of mistakes. “I didn’t know how to handle the ball,” he says. “I kept fumbling. I didn’t know how to run through the holes.”

This year, Coach Ferri asked Tijani to play on the defensive line. At five-foot-ten and 165 pounds, Tijani will be smaller than almost every offensive lineman he squares off against. But Ferri is banking on his speed. A hurdler come track season, Tijani has a beautiful, fluid stride. When the team runs sprints at the end of practice, Tijani crosses the line first almost every time.

Tijani was born in Sierra Leone and came to Virginia when he was 12. His father was killed in Sierra Leone’s civil war when Tijani was three. He lives in an apartment about two miles from campus with his mother and two of his seven brothers; three are still in Sierra Leone.

Tijani has a hard time explaining what he thought of America when he first got here. “I just can’t think of a word to say,” he says. “If I could estimate, America is 98 percent, compared to my country, which is 2 percent. Of everything—opportunities, health, food, everything.”

Krio, the native tongue of Sierra Leone, blends English and African languages. Tijani spent a lot of time in the library studying English when he got here.

Tijani misses his brothers. He wants to go back to Sierra Leone after college. He asked Coach Ferri if he’ll go with him to teach the kids there how to play football. “I’m not going to go back to stay,” he says, “but I’ll go back to help the people there because they need help.”

To pitch in for groceries and rent, Tijani works about 20 hours a week at the Super Dollar in Falls Church. When he was in Sierra Leone, he couldn’t go to school or work: “We were busy running from the violence.”

Many players feel caught between two worlds. During the day, they’re in a typical American high school—going to class, trying to make friends. At home, they live in a different culture and often speak a different language.

The coaches joke that they already have an advantage over last year, when Ramadan fell in the middle of football season. About ten kids on the team participated in the Islamic holiday, which meant they didn’t eat or drink from dusk to dawn for a month.

Every season, the team loses a few kids who can’t get to practice while also holding down after-school jobs. Those who do manage to juggle school, football, and jobs often have to miss team meetings.

Tijani’s mother has never been to one of his football games. Like many of the kids’ parents, she doesn’t understand the rules and finds the game too rough. “She feels sorry for me because when she sees it on TV she says I’m too skinny,” says Tijani.

Assistant coach Nedal Awadallah, whose parents were born in Palestine, played for Ferri at Stuart in the ’90s. He remembers how hard it was to learn how to play football. He sees himself in a lot of the players on this year’s team.

“It’s good for these kids to be in a school like this,” says Awadallah. “They look around and see that everybody is from a different country and think, ‘If they can do it, I can do it.’ ”

“All right, boys,” Coach Ferri yells at practice, “it’s time for your favorite—Amazing Feats of Strength!” The players groan and scatter to corners of the field.

On the far end, kids carry trash cans full of gravel from one end of the field to the other. At another station, they pick up 45-pound weights with two hands, squat, and push them away from their chests. During the wheelbarrow, one boy assumes a pushup position while another picks up his feet so he can walk on his hands.

Ferri designed the drills to build toughness and strength. Many of the players are from Central America, Asia, and the Middle East, and they’re smaller than most American football players. Ferri describes the team as “bordering on tiny.” He paces the field as the boys move from station to station, shouting encouragement. “We need to be a hungry pack of wolves!” he yells. “We’re too damn small to be lazy!”

Jason Friday remembers hearing the pop. His hamstring had been tight for a few weeks. When his pass was intercepted during a preseason scrimmage, he forgot all about his leg. Anger boiling inside him, he ran full speed at the defender who had picked off his pass. Something in his right leg snapped.

The noise Jason heard was an avulsion fracture—his hamstring tore away from his pelvis, fracturing part of the bone.

With the adrenaline flowing, Jason felt little pain. He limped off the field, thinking he could bounce back in a week or two. When the doctors realized what had happened, his junior-year season vanished. “It just killed me,” he says.

Last year would have been Jason’s first chance to start as varsity quarterback. His dream is to play Division I football like his dad did at Georgia Tech. 

Ray Friday is a football legend at Stuart. As a running back in the 1970s, he led the state in scoring, was first team All-District, All-State, All-Met, Northern Virginia Player of the Year. His senior year, he led the Raiders to the state semifinals.

Jason inherited his dad’s athleticism. At six-four and 205 pounds, he’s one of the strongest kids on the team. He can throw the ball more than 60 yards. He loves the strategy of play-calling, the exhilaration of a crushing hit. He likes being the leader on the field. “Coming to Stuart, I knew it was going to be a challenge trying to turn the team around,” says Jason. “At quarterback, I can kind of lead that.”

Ray Friday says that if Ferri hadn’t been hired as head coach after Jason’s sophomore year, he probably would have transferred. Sometimes Jason can’t help but wonder if playing for Stuart hurts his chances of playing college ball.

Jason’s goal is to lead the team to a winning season, something he hopes college coaches will appreciate: “I think it will look really good if I go into a losing program and turn it back into a winning program.”

Last season—Ferri’s first back with the Raiders—fell apart quickly. Jason and the second-string varsity quarterback were both hurt before the first game. About a dozen kids quit or were kicked off the team. The team broke its 25-game losing streak with a victory over McLean in the second game, then muddled through the rest of the season, finishing 1-9.

Still, a lot of the kids see last year as a success. The junior-varsity and freshman teams each won a handful of games. Ferri says his players now believe they can win.

All of the players have Coach Ferri’s phone number in their cell phones. They call him at all hours.

Ferri lets them hang out at his house. If he thinks they won’t eat dinner before a game or practice, he cooks for them. He took one of the kids to get a physical on the Tuesday morning before two-a-days began—and paid the $60 fee himself.

If they’re late for practice, he calls to see where they are. He asks about their grades and knows what’s going on at home.

Coach Awadallah says the kids look up to Ferri. “He treats them like adults—he doesn’t just sit there and yell at them like some football coaches,” he says.

When Pamela Jones became Stuart’s principal in 2006, she wanted to get Ferri back. She’d been at the school more than 25 years, as a teacher, assistant principal, and department chair. She remembered the strong bonds Ferri cultivated with students. “He’ll work with them forever,” she says. “He understands them—and if you don’t understand our kids, then they’re never going to work for you. They work for Coach Ferri because he gets them.”

Ferri likes to tell stories—such as the one about the two brothers from China who signed up for the team three weeks into the season. The other kids nicknamed them “the laundry boys” because of the way their unworn uniforms looked next to everyone else’s mud-splattered jerseys.

One of the brothers, Aryat Chasiri, played varsity football for three years. Because he was big, Ferri never thought to ask how old he was. After Aryat graduated, Ferri found out he had started for the team as a 12-year-old.

Coaches gather in Ferri’s windowless office off the gym to listen and reminisce—six of Ferri’s assistants used to play for him. They tell stories about old teammates, about games lost and won.

One of Ferri’s favorites is the story of Jeremy Worrell. Worrell went to Stuart in the ’80s and grew up in a rundown apartment near Columbia Pike. “His freshman-year schedule was PE, basket weaving, trash-can repair—I mean, it was the dopiest thing ever,” says Ferri.

After a strong freshman year on the track team, Ferri told Worrell he might have a shot at a college scholarship—but only if he worked harder at school. “So we sent him to summer school and we got him extra help,” says Ferri. “He ended up getting a full ride to Villanova, got his master’s from Villanova, and now he lives in some big house out in Manassas.”

A framed article about Worrell hangs on the wall in Ferri’s office. Such stories are why Ferri loves coaching high-school kids, he says. He points to the article as he talks about one of the seniors on this year’s team, running back and strong safety Chris Ventura. He reminds Ferri of Worrell. If Chris can get a scholarship to play in college, it could change his life, too.

Every day last summer, Chris Ventura left his apartment around 3 in the afternoon to jog to Stuart’s campus. There he would spend four hours lifting weights, running laps, and sprinting with a parachute attached to his waist. After his workout, he would jog the mile back to his small apartment just south of Columbia Pike, where he lives with his mother, grandmother, and younger brother.

Four framed photographs of Chris playing football hang in their home. In each he has the football tucked beneath his arm, his black ponytail spilling from his helmet as he darts around defenders in the glow of the stadium lights.

Chris’s mother, Ana, was born in El Salvador and came to the United States with her mother and four siblings in the 1980s. After graduating from T.C. Williams High School, she settled in Falls Church. Their family—which has grown to 12 first cousins—all live in Northern Virginia.

Chris grew up playing soccer with his uncles and cousins. “Sometimes we play American football,” says his uncle Marvin. “And I’m like, ‘Let him go.’ There’s no way we can stop him.”

When Chris was eight, his mother was diagnosed with a brain tumor. His aunts and uncles hosted neighborhood dinners and played Latino music to raise money for her treatment. She was 25 years old.

With his mother sick, a lot of responsibility fell to Chris. His younger brother, Carlos, was a year old. Chris and his grandmother gave Carlos baths, changed his diapers, and fed him dinner. 

In 2003, an aneurysm and stroke stunted Ana’s recovery. “I was not talking,” says Ana. “Not moving at all.” Watching his mom get sicker and sicker crushed Chris. “I just wanted to stop doing everything,” he says. He lost focus at school, stopped playing football.

Chris’s uncle Marvin sat him down. “He told me that if something were to happen to my mom, it would make her proud if I actually made it,” says Chris.

Football became his refuge, a time and place he could forget about his mother’s illness. He plays, he says, to make his family proud, to be a role model for his younger brother, to give his mom a better life.

Chris would be the first in his family to go to college. He wants to stay within driving distance but would go to any school that offered him a scholarship.

At practice, Chris goes through each drill with quiet intensity. Ferri says it’s clear that football means a lot to Chris. “I think it’s almost like this could be his ticket but he doesn’t want to say that,” says Ferri. “He doesn’t want to get his hopes up.”

After all the practicing and waiting, the first game is about to start. In the weight room before kickoff, the players stretch and dance to a hip-hop song. His head bouncing to the music, Tijani claps his hands and tries to fire up his teammates. Chris and Jason sit silently on the ground, lost in their own thoughts. The Raiders’ opponent tonight is George Mason High School, a team they lost to last year by one point.

Less than five minutes before kickoff, Ferri strides in and turns off the music. “This is going to be a short speech, fellas,” he says as he paces the weight room, cleats clicking against the concrete floor.

Ferri tells the team that playing football on a Friday night is unlike anything else they’ll do in high school. This experience—the stadium lights, the cheerleaders, the band, the packed bleachers—doesn’t happen in any other sport. He asks them to think back on all the hours in the weight room and the two-a-day practices.

“This is why you did it,” he says. “You did it so when they call your name and they fire that friggin’ cannon, you could say, ‘Man, it was all worth it tonight.’ ”

Stuart wins the coin toss and receives the kickoff. On the first play, Jason hands the ball to Chris, who smashes through a pack of white jerseys for a gain of eight.

The offense pushes down the field but has to call two unexpected time-outs to straighten out problems on the line. After two incomplete passes, Stuart turns the ball over on downs.

Ferri paces the sideline, barking orders at assistant coaches and pulling players aside to give instructions. Midway through the second quarter, a George Mason player breaks free for a 50-yard touchdown run. The Raiders go into the half down 7-0.

In the weight room at halftime, Ferri speaks calmly. The defense is playing well, he says. One mistake led to the touchdown. The defense has to squeeze in tight and stop the run.

To his offense, Ferri delivers an impassioned plea: No more mistakes. “I don’t know how friggin’ hard it is to line up where you’re supposed to line up,” he says. His red golf shirt is dark with sweat. “Think about what you’re doing when you leave the huddle.”

Night has fallen by the start of the second half. The strong play of the defense and special teams keeps Stuart in the game. Tijani’s voice has turned gravelly from yelling. Chris is having the best game of his life on defense, racking up 16 tackles.

The defense stops a Mason attempt to convert on fourth down, giving Stuart the ball on the Mason 30-yard line. Despite several nice throws by Jason, the offense can’t find a rhythm. Penalties push the ball back five yards, then ten more.

For almost every completed pass or running gain, the officials seem to call an equal penalty. As the final seconds tick off the game clock, the scoreboard reads visitor: 10; stuart: 0.

Ferri gathers the team in the end zone. The boys take off their helmets and kneel on the grass. Most look at the ground, too exhausted or upset to meet the eyes of their coach. Ferri draws them in close and, in a voice softer than usual, tells them they lost because of errors. “They weren’t better athletes than you,” he says. “They weren’t a better team than you. They beat you because they were smarter than you.”

Ferri then tells the team to look ahead to the rest of the season. This was a non-league matchup that doesn’t matter. In the next few weeks, they’ll play more-important games against Mount Vernon, Washington-Lee, Yorktown, Falls Church. Tomorrow morning, the team will meet at 9 to watch game tapes and try to fix the problems that sparked so many penalties.

When Ferri is finished, the players stand up and begin to join the crowd filing out of the stands. Ferri stops them.

“Put your helmets on,” he says, “and walk out of here like men.”

Epilogue: Coach Ferri didn’t sleep much the weekend after the George Mason game. He knew the Raiders were a better team than they’d looked that first night.

The following Monday, Ferri and his staff taught the team a new offense. They wanted to spread out and focus on the passing game. “The kids thought we were hitting the panic button,” says Ferri, “but we had to shake things up. I wasn’t going to sit around and watch us get shut out.”

The next Friday, the Raiders beat George C. Marshall 34-14. Two weeks later, they won again at Mount Vernon.

With two wins under their belts, the players marched in the homecoming parade for the first time in years. Parents, kids, and alumni came out to cheer. That night, in front of a packed crowd, Stuart crushed Wakefield 47-13. Chris Ventura rushed for 155 yards and scored three touchdowns. Jason Friday threw for 141 yards, including two touchdowns.

The Raiders are having their best season since 1998, their dream of making the playoffs still alive. “Our goal is to be practicing on Thanksgiving,” says Ferri—which would mean they were playing for the regional championship.

This article first appeared in the November 2009 issue of The Washingtonian. For more articles from that issue, click here