By CHRIS McMANES — Football season never really ends at DeMatha Catholic High School. It just enters different phases.
“It never stops,” DeMatha Coach Elijah Brooks said. “You get Thanksgiving and you get Christmas to breathe. And then as soon as the new year hits, it’s full speed ahead.”
The Stags saw what hard work and good fortune can do on Super Bowl Sunday. They were well aware that 2008 graduate Rodney McLeod plays for the world champion Philadelphia Eagles.
Three days later, the students witnessed first-hand where tenacity and effort on the field and in the classroom can lead when 11 senior football players signed their National Letter of Intent to play football in college. Whether it’s a high-profile school like Notre Dame or Alabama, or a low-profile program like St. Francis or Morgan State doesn’t matter.
“Obviously, you have your A-liners that get all the publicity, but there a lot of fantastic schools that come in and give our kids an opportunity to continue their education, and pay for it, that don’t get noticed,” Brooks said on National Signing Day, Feb. 7. “But ultimately you can only go to one school, and everybody has to go to their right fit.
“So, it ends up working out for a lot of our guys.”
Brooks, who played running back at Kent State and William and Mary, said he looks forward to the signing ceremony his high school alma mater holds each year.
“It’s one of my best days here as a coach,” he said. “When a kid can come through the program, put in the time, and trust and believe in the process, to have an opportunity to go on and get a top-notch education and continue to play football is a great feeling.”
It wasn’t such a good feeling when the four-time reigning Washington Catholic Athletic Conference champs lost in the first round of the 2017 playoffs and finished 6-5. Several Stags are now sporting T-shirts with the simple motivational message of “6-5” on them.
“They’re training four days a week in the weight room, getting stronger and getting prepared for the upcoming season,” Brooks said.
Tyler Lenhart, who split starting quarterback duties with Eric Najarian after suffering a left knee injury early in the season, grew from a 6-foot-1, 160-pound freshman into a 6-3, 210-pound senior. He said Brooks and his coaching staff prepared him “better than anyone could” to play in college. He’s heading to New York to play for Columbia.
“From day one when I stepped in here, they instilled in me everything that I need,” said Lenhart, who commutes to school from Gambrills. “From character as a person to that blue-collar grit on the field. Coach Brooks really focuses on [a] blue-collar [mentality]. I have a lot of respect for that.
“He doesn’t let us B.S. or mess around. It was a tough four years, but [he tells us that being] focused, hard-working guys is going to pay off at the college level.”
Improving the Game
On Saturday Feb. 17, DeMatha will host a coaches clinic to help youth and high school coaches become better at their craft. College assistants lead the learning sessions. A sampling of programs includes Maryland, Virginia, Temple, Michigan and Penn State. Among local schools are Bowie State, Howard and Catholic University.
By teaching at the clinic, college recruiters improve their relationship with Brooks, and by extension, their chances of landing a particular player.
“It’s a two-fold deal,” Brooks said. “They want to recruit our players, [so they offer] to do something for us in return. You’ve got to take advantage of your opportunities. Those guys do a fantastic job of coming and giving back and helping out where they can. It’s something that we’ve been doing for a while now.”
Football players who put pen to paper on National Signing Day were Jalen Brown (St. Francis); Austin Fontaine (Maryland); Evan Gregory (Maryland), Anthony Hill (Old Dominion); Michael Holt (Shepherd); Tyler Lenhart (Columbia); Dominic Lyles (Bucknell); John Morgan (Pittsburgh); Judson Tallandier (Pittsburgh); Anthony Toro (Delaware); and Detrick Washington (Morgan State).
Justin Gielen was the only Stag to sign a soccer scholarship. He will play at national power Maryland.
When Philadelphia captured Super Bowl LII, Rodney McLeod earned the distinction of being the first former Stag to win an NFL championship. A safety who played collegiately at Virginia, McLeod got a hand on Tom Brady’s Hail Mary pass at game’s end to help preserve the Eagles’ 41-33 victory over the Patriots.
It was Philadelphia’s first NFL title since 1960. The Super Bowl didn’t start until six seasons later.
Tom Ponton, DeMatha’s director of advancement, said he is trying to get McLeod back on campus so the school can honor him.
DeMatha President Father James Day had two reasons to cheer for the Eagles: In addition to enjoying seeing a former student prosper, he grew up in Philadelphia.
The DeMatha Football Showcase and Combine, hosted by the Bowie Bulldogs and Team Metro Maryland, is set for Sunday Feb. 18, 4 to 7 p.m., at the Capital Sportsplex in Glenn Dale. The event is for sixth-, seventh- and eighth-graders to demonstrate their skills and learn new ones. The cost is $20 per athlete.
Chris McManes (mick-maynz) covers DeMatha sports for the Hyattsville Life & Times.