This is where the Varina faithful gather to watch their seedlings grow future high school football players honing their craft. Even at ages 10, 11 and 12, wearing full pads and helmets, each snap of the ball is yet another small test for these boys to prove their potential, to don the blue and gold on Friday nights.
It was on this field, on previous Saturdays years ago, that Varina watched their current star high-school running back, Brandon Minor, tear through defenses with his pal Victor "Macho" Harris, now the star at Highland Springs. Today both players are top college recruits. During their stint on the Varina little league team, which included Lee-Davis running back Brandon Randolph and Hermitage star Josh Vaughan, the team went 43-1, winning three Metropolitan Football League championships from 1998 to 2001.
Today, there is another star in the making 5-foot-7 12-year-old, Lewis "Trey" Johnson III, who romps up and down the field like a man among boys, sometimes carrying two or three around his waist and ankles.
"He lives for football," says a glowing Patricia Barley, the boy's mother. She pulled Trey out of the recreation league program at Highland Springs last year, instead opting for Varina, because the coaches at Highland Springs "weren't using him right."
She says this with a pinch of vitriol.
"I love the coaching here," she says. "He was doing nothing at Highland Springs."
Some say Hollywood has ruined the game as seen in the film "Friday Night Lights," in Janet Jackson's breast-exposing Super Bowl romp, on ESPN's soap opera "Playmakers," which came complete with gold-digging hookers, illegal painkillers and, yes, Snoop Doggy Dogg.
But if Hollywood has led the sport astray, then Varina is a safe haven for it: An old, tattered gym with no air conditioning. A wooden sled harnessed to the back of a 16-year-old. The aroma of bratwurst.
Football is family here, a social gathering, a way of life. Greater still, football is how the community defines itself. And it's a very good year for Varina. The Varina High School Blue Devils are ranked No. 1 in the state, according to the latest Associated Press poll. They are undefeated, the favorite to win the AAA state championship.
If life has meaning, if there is pain and joy, heaven and hell, then so goes Varina versus Highland Springs.
The rivalry goes back 50 years. The Saturday kids playing pee-wee football may not know it, but one day they'll understand that everything boils down to the Blue Devils and the Highland Springs Springers. For the football purists, of whom there are many in these parts, legends start when these teams face off.
It's the day of the big game, Friday, Nov. 12, and it hasn't stopped raining. The field is drenched, the grass nothing but a thin layer of sod that quivers atop a giant mud puddle.
It's enough to make Robert "Pooka" Scott, a gigantic assistant coach for Varina, giddy with testosterone and camaraderie. He barks at his players as they meander out of the locker room an hour before kickoff to stretch in the gym. He encourages them to ditch their Under Armour, fancy high-performance underclothing, and "go raw dog" the way he and his teammates did in the late 1980s.
"This is just Varina football," muses Scott, sitting on the bench outside the locker room and field house, staring into the cold rain. He played for Varina from 1986 to 1990 and recalls how "it would always rain" when Varina played Highland Springs. But tonight, that's advantage Varina, a team built on big, beefy offensive linemen, three of them at more than 300 pounds, and a bruising running attack.
"No matter what, we can always line up and run straight at you," Scott says.
In the bleachers, a sea of umbrellas. Fans of both teams have been talking about this game for months. It's been sold out for weeks, and tonight 4,000 people have shown up to brave the cold, steady downpour. Some two dozen Henrico County police officers are on hand to manage the crowd.
It's parents' night, so the seniors line up and walk the track as the announcer introduces each graduating player. Although this isn't the last game the team will play at home, it's the final regular-season game. The Capital District playoffs start next week. This is the litmus test.
Highland Springs has tremendous speed on defense and offense, and boasts the quickest, most electric running back in the region Macho Harris who suffered a slight concussion in a game a week earlier. Springers Coach Scott Burton told the Richmond Times-Dispatch it was unlikely Harris would play.
Varina knew differently. Brandon Minor, the Blue Devils' stud running back, is a close friend to Harris. He knew on Monday that Harris would be on the field Friday night, even though he teasingly advised Harris against it. Macho was better off at home, Minor warned, otherwise he just might deliver concussion No. 2.
"I knew he was going to play," Minor says outside the locker room, after spotting Harris warming up on the sidelines, wearing his familiar No. 7 jersey.
"I think Highland Springs will be the only team that will test them," says Bill Greene, a 55-year-old energy consultant who has been coming to the games for 10 years. He's a Blue Devils fan who attends even the away games. Three weeks earlier, Greene, a broad-shouldered man wearing a wool shirt and a wide smile, had waxed prophetic about the football gods of Hanover County, leaning on a fence as Varina pummeled Atlee 63-8.
There's a bigger picture for Greene. Football teaches the boys a work ethic, he says. Hard labor begets success in anything you do in work, family, community. "It's not about football," Greene says. "This is about life."
The Atlee game was over before it started. Shortly after the opening kickoff, as both teams came rumbling down the field, there was a loud thud like a bird slamming into a closed window. Varina had pinned Atlee, stopping the play dead. Atlee fumbled on the next play. Thirty seconds into the second quarter, Varina was up 35-0, with Minor muscling over defenders like a bowling ball. Varina notched its eighth victory, the fifth time this season it had beaten an opponent by more than 50 points.
Joe Cannon, the team's announcer, was roaming the sidelines during the Atlee game. He's opinionated. Once he was ejected from a basketball game for chastising an official over the PA. When a couple of fights broke out at a Varina football game earlier this season, he scolded the perpetrators as "morons."
The lack of competition, he says, doesn't help his Blue Devils in their quest to win a state championship. "It's like a scrimmage," he moans of Atlee.
But Highland Springs is no Atlee. Not only is the team fast, it's undefeated, ranked third in the region by the Times-Dispatch, and fifth best statewide by the AP poll. It's one of those rare occasions when two undefeated teams in the top AAA bracket meet during the regular season.
The significance isn't lost on Varina Head Coach Gary Chilcoat. He won't be pulling his starters in the third quarter tonight. He's gone over potential offensive schemes. He's worried that Highland Springs will switch to a passing scheme he calls the "Jet," which sends two wide receivers down the right and left sidelines simultaneously to spread out the field, giving Macho more holes, more room to run.
He's gone over everything, and in the agonizing hours before the game, gets irritable and grumpy. He hates those few hours before kickoff. Years ago, as a player, he often threw up before taking the field. While he manages the stress better nowadays, he's clearly tense.
He runs all the different scenarios through his head: Did he study enough tape? Is there something he missed that the Springers will use? With this muddy field, there's the additional angst of a slippery, turnover-prone ball, a coach's nightmare.
"I don't want all this hard work to come down to a muddy football," he says in the school cafeteria, where he and his team gather for the pre-game meal. The scene is odd, bordering on ridiculous. Giant players, sitting in colored chairs, are hunched over thigh-high cafeteria tables, munching grilled chicken, and macaroni and cheese.
The scene seems to disarm the players as well. A strange calm hovers over the room. Big John Easter, a massive 350-pound senior lineman, although quite shy, melts into a puddle of innocence when approached by a reporter, barely able to muster a response about his favorite NFL team the Dallas Cowboys. He grins with a wide smile and a silent chuckle.
After the meal and the stretch in the gym, the moment arrives. The team huddles in the locker room, dressed and seated, 43 mouths dead silent. It's over all the preparation, all the off-season work, all the hill sprints, the sand-pit sleds, the hot summer workouts in the tattered gymnasium in the basement. It's time.
Coach Chilcoat, a native of Arkansas, conjures up an old Southern truism. "When the hay is in the barn, there's no more work to be done," he tells the boys. "Well, the hay is in the barn."
In the moments before charging into the miserable mud bath, Chilcoat rouses the team again with his militaristic bark. He makes Jo-Jo Johnson, the freakishly quick-footed 350-pound lineman, an honorary co-captain. Then he delivers the kick in the teeth the players crave: "Somebody is going to be crowned king today," Chilcoat yells. "We've shown them on paper, now let's show them on the field. We're the kings of the Capital District!"
Then Chilcoat summons the demons. It's time to unleash that well-manicured beast within. "Close your eyes," he tells them, "and think about what you are going to do to the man in front of you."
Big John scrunches his face and screams like an animal, punching his helmet with his taped fist. The players file out of the locker room, each tapping with their right hand, just once, a plastic sign by the door.
Prepare to be champions.
Almost instantly, the grass disappears into a sea of thick, ankle-deep mud. Varina's defense stifles Macho and the Springers.
But Highland Springs also bottles up the Varina running attack. For the first time all season, the Blue Devils go three and out, unable to generate a first down or a touchdown, the team's typical result on an opening drive. It's unfamiliar territory, but the coaches tried to prepare them for it: Don't panic if you can't score on the opening drive.
The Blue Devils are so good they've come to expect scoring not only on the first drive, but sometimes even on the first snap. At Atlee, the first two plays from scrimmage resulted in touchdowns for Varina. Tonight, there is no immediate victory.
In the early going, the mud is an equalizer. Varina fumbles twice. By the end of the first quarter, neither team has scored. But early in the second quarter, Minor rattles off a 19-yard touchdown run.
With just a 6-point lead in the second quarter, however, the Varina crowd seems a tad worried. Macho Harris has nearly broken a couple of plays for touchdowns. This doesn't look like the juggernaut they've come to know not yet, at least.
Frank Young, a flooring installer from Sandston, says he isn't concerned for now. But the rainy conditions and low score elicit a touch of criticism. He says Chilcoat lost the state championship for the team in 1999. While he likes the coach immeasurably, Young says, Chilcoat is capable of being "a bonehead."
(In an interview the week before, Chilcoat explained that the team's loss to C.D. Hylton in the 1999 championship game came as a result of a coaching miscue just before the first half ended. The Blue Devils were up 27-7. With Hylton at midfield, the team scored unexpectedly as Varina scrambled to get into the proper defensive set. Chilcoat said he should have called a timeout to regroup. With Hylton down 27-14, the momentum shifted and Varina came out of the second half trying not to lose the game, instead of playing to win. He recalled, "They just took the wind out of us.")
The what-if game can go on endlessly. And it's difficult to find anyone who faults Chilcoat for much of anything. The team on the field is largely a result of his strict training regimen the team starts its voluntary off-season training in February and he runs his team like a never-ending boot camp during the season. Even after a victory, the team must run hill sprints for every point the other team has scored. They hold practice at 8 a.m. on Saturday following Friday night games.
Chilcoat has scads of players who move on to play college football. He and his assistants have helped more than 50 ex-Varina players join collegiate ranks since 1995, including the starting quarterback for Penn State, Michael Robinson, and brothers Jonathan and Kevin Lewis, both defensive linemen at Virginia Tech. It's not uncommon, Chilcoat says, for former players to tell him that football practice got easier in college. "That's the secret to our program," he says. "It takes a lot of work."
And it doesn't hurt that the team refuses to practice in the gym like some high school teams when the weather doesn't accommodate. They practice in the rain, cold, whatever. Against Highland Springs tonight, that practice pays off.
During the game, the players frequently retreat to the sidelines to wash out the mud in their eyes and helmets. Jerome Meredith, a security guard who played high school football in New Jersey, is standing under an umbrella a few feet from the concession stand, smiling warmly at what to him is near-perfect football weather.
"This separates the men from the boys," he says, chuckling. Almost on cue, Varina's Minor scampers 45 yards down the sideline to score with just over a minute left in the first half.
At halftime, Varina parents greet the players outside in front of the locker room. It's 12-0, the Blue Devils in front, and the rain seems to be coming down harder. It's almost over. Just two quarters, Coach Chilcoat tells them in the locker room, is all that is left. "Twenty-four minutes of gut check!" he screams, his voice hoarse.
With the exception of one defensive breakdown, which leads to the only Macho touchdown of the night a 50-yard run Varina heads out of the locker room and takes care of the smaller Springers. Varina, with its size upfront, eventually wears the other team down, winning the game 28-7.
It seems like something they always do. Varina boys always seem a little bigger, beefier. They roll over you.
"We think it's something in the water down here that makes them bigger," says Rudy Ward, athletic director at Highland Springs, who's standing in the rain on the sidelines with Highland Springs principal Al Ciarochi.
Highland Springs has lost to nemesis Varina nine straight times. And it hurts, says Ward, because the Springers have just as loyal a fan base and just as strong a football tradition. There are probably 150 people who have regularly attended Springers games for 20 years or more, he says. One of the team's ball boys, Robert T. Stoney Jr., has been a ball boy for more than 50 years.
Why? It's hard to place. Ciarochi ponders that the community is less transient for some reason. People who go to Highland Springs and Varina, many of them stick around after graduation. They pass down the tradition.
Talk to people outside the locker room and those meandering around the stands, and the theory seems to hold up. Almost everyone has a cousin or a brother or an uncle who played football either at Varina or somewhere nearby. Even after the kids leave, some for college, the parents keep coming. After graduating, the players come back and coach for the JV team, in the recreation league, wherever.
When his son Kevin Burke Jr. left to play football for West Virginia last year, Kevin Burke Sr. kept coming to the high school games. So did David Lewis, father of the Lewis brothers now playing for Virginia Tech. They're both here tonight outside the locker room, offering support and lending a hand if needed.
"It was kind of like, 'OK, what I'm going to do now?'" Burke says, chuckling. "So you grab onto someone else's kid."
After the game, the players assemble at midfield. Coach Chilcoat reminds them team that beating Highland Springs isn't enough. They have to win four more games to win the state championship.
But as a reward, he tells the players he's giving them a reprieve from the early Saturday morning practice.
Instead of 8 o'clock, practice starts at 10. S
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