By Kevin S. Austin
Only 4.8 miles apart, Cross Keys High School and Chamblee Charter High School once shared an intense football rivalry.
But entering the 2010 season, their win-loss records are as far apart as many of their students’ countries of origin. Cross Keys is looking for its first non-forfeit win since 2006. Chamblee opens its season Aug. 27 with new head Coach James Soza building on the success of the last five years, when the Bulldogs were 42-16.
They haven’t played each other since 2001, and it’s unlikely they ever will again.
Cross Keys, hasn’t had a winning season since 1994, when they went 8-4. It’s also the last time they beat Chamblee. Their goal this year: Win at least one game. They kicked the season off Aug. 21 by losing to Our Lady of Mercy 41-18.
Since 2008, Head Coach David Radford has handled the trials and tribulations of trying to teach football to kids who have never played it, let alone competed against perennial powerhouses such as Buford or Lovett.
“We only have 35 kids total in our program,” Radford said, and they come from about a dozen countries. “Soccer is their first sport.”
Cross Keys is the most diverse school in the state, according to the DeKalb County school system. It has students from 65 countries who speak 75 languages.
Coaching football at Cross Keys is “one of the five toughest jobs in the state,” said Todd Holcomb, who publishes the Georgia High School Football Daily newsletter.
Radford remains undaunted. “We have a lot of kids from very tough backgrounds, and we have them draw on their personal experiences,” he said. “One of my players told me he literally took a month to cross a desert to get to the United States.”
Several more have spent time in refugee camps.
Cross Keys has about 830 students and until this year played in Region 6-AA, which includes Buford and Lovett, two schools with strong winning traditions. Buford has won the state AA title three years in a row.
By scheduling only non-region teams, Cross Keys will not be eligible for post-season play. They went to the easier schedule to try to build some wins and momentum in the program and partially as a safety issue, Radford said.
Building character and encouraging students is a shared goal of Soza at Chamblee. Chamblee’s student population is also diverse, but not as many countries are represented in its student body as in Cross Keys’. And, as a magnet and charter school, Chamblee attracts students – and players – from across the county. In fact, most of the Bulldogs players are not from the immediate area.
“We have a unique situation at Chamblee,” Soza said. “Kids come here for the special academic and athletic opportunities.”
Soza, who is from Oklahoma and attended Yale University as an undergraduate, learned first-hand the value of opening up to other people and other cultures. “The people I met made my world much bigger, and I want to provide that opportunity to these kids.”
Rod Jones, an attorney from Stone Mountain, has had three sons play football and attend Chamblee’s magnet program. The youngest, Theo Jones, 16, has been in the DeKalb magnet program for years, he has always been in a diverse environment and has a lot of friends from different cultures.
The level of cultural diversity at Cross Keys is a couple of notches higher. On the football team, the quarterback barks the snap count cadence in Spanish – a tool Radford uses to entice more Hispanic students to join the program.
Mpaza Kapembwa, originally from Zambia, is the Cross Keys kicker, and with a 4.1 GPA has his sights set on Harvard. “If you love your position and what you are doing, it doesn’t make any difference,” he said about the Indians’ losing tradition.
He and his teammates have endured some taunting, because of their losing ways and ethnic diversity, but Radford urges them to shrug off the negativity and use it to motivate themselves to play harder. Radford also texts each player every day with an evaluation of the previous practice.
Earlier this month, Cross Keys won their preseason scrimmage 14-0 against Loganville Christian, “It was the first win ever for some of my seniors,” Radford said.
Cross Keys and Chamblee last played in the same region in 2000 and 2001. Both programs were at low ebb.
Wade Beale, who coached Chamblee at the time, said the 2000 game was a big one, because both teams wanted to use it as a springboard.
“I remember the players were jabbering back and forth. It was a rivalry kind of game,” Beale said. The Bulldogs came out on top 20-12, then shut out Cross Keys 35-0 the next year. Overall, Chamblee owns the series, 17-5-2.
When Beale started at Chamblee in 2000, that program was teetering. The team shared a baseball field for practice with the band, he said, and didn’t have a locker room. He and the assistant coaches built lockers in an area under the gym and painted the room the school’s colors, blue and gold.
Since then, the magnet program and switch to charter status boosted Chamblee’s student population. Athletic programs experienced resurgence.
Cross Keys is still hoping for that jumpstart. The team finally created its own weight room – in a classroom – recently and stocked it with equipment donated by a Lovett School family. But there is no booster club, and the games are poorly attended because many of the parents work long hours and weekends. The end of year banquet last year was a modest affair, with three parents doing the cooking and the whole thing financed by a $5 per person fee.
Still, Radford perseveres. He grew up in Indiana and used football as a way to get out of a gang environment. He teaches his kids to punch any ticket that will help them grow and advance. With a kinder, gentler schedule, he’s trying to punch Cross Keys’ ticket to football success.