Midtown: Sports

Word of God, football coach unbeaten

Word of God football coach Kevin Washington was in his element Friday night.

Standing on the Wilders Grove Youth Center field after another Rams victory, he seemed to breathe in the atmosphere with every pore in his body.

“Football is a beautiful thing,” Washington said. “It’s outdoors; you can smell the grill going; kids can run and play. It’s a family environment. What else is there to do on a Friday night? There is something special about it.”

Since Washington took over as head coach before the 2010 season, football has been very special at Word of God. The Rams have never lost a game under Washington, rolling to back-to-back 12-0 seasons culminating in NCISAA eight-man state titles. The Rams (4-0 this season) are riding a 28-game winning streak.

Washington, the Raleigh private school’s athletic director and a successful basketball coach for the Rams before moving to the gridiron, got his first look at eight-man football when his basketball team was at a tournament in 2005. It was, he decided, something that the school could handle.

With a high school enrollment of about 100, he figured that he could field a team. He began the program in 2006 and was the offensive coordinator. When he became head football coach, he left basketball behind.

“I coached basketball for 12 years, but I just love football,” Washington said. “The only difference in eight-man (football) is that you bring the sidelines in five yards on each side. You try to get the ball in your athletes’ hands and let them do what they do.”

The Rams rolled past Halifax Academy 68-25 on Friday night, a score typical for most of their regular-season games during the streak. But the week before, trailing 14-6 at halftime to St. David’s, the Rams had to rally for a 24-20 victory – the closest contest in the streak.

The victory over St. David’s was not secured until Casty St. Louis intercepted a pass in the end zone in the final seconds.

“Going into halftime, it seemed unreal to me,” Rams junior quarterback Jason Fields said. “We got it together and got the win. I feel like it brought us back to reality.”

The streak is important to all 19 players on the Rams’ roster. But for senior running back Jonathan Jackson, in his third season playing for Word of God, it is something he desperately wants to protect.

“I haven’t lost [at Word of God],” he said. “It’s something we take pride in. I don’t plan on dropping the baton on my watch. I want us to go 12-0 again and finish my career 36-0 here.”

This year’s Word of God team is a talented group led by St. Louis, Jackson and Fields – who play both ways. The Rams can score on offense and defense. Against Halifax Academy, Diantre James returned an interception 91 yards for a touchdown and then took a fumble recovery back 70 yards for a score.

“I just try to get the ball whenever I can and take it to the house,” said James, a 6-3, 195-pound sophomore.

The Rams’ top threat is St. Louis, a senior who transferred from Wake Forest-Rolesville. St. Louis moved to North Carolina after playing high school football in Florida in the ninth grade. He repeated the ninth grade because of academic requirements and had used up his four years of public-school eligibility after his junior season at WF-R.

The 5-9, 175-pounder is hard to handle in the eight-man game. With breakaway speed (he says he runs a 4.3-second 40), St. Louis is piling up yards at a staggering clip.

Against Halifax Academy, St. Louis carried the ball only four times. But he scored on three of his runs – going 53, 62 and 97 yards for touchdowns and finishing with 230 yards. If he gets outside, he uses excellent field vision to find an open lane, and with only eight men on defense, one broken tackle is often enough to send him on his way.

“I try to keep my eyes wide open and use my field vision [to find open space],” St. Louis said. “I try to anticipate where the defense is going to go. You have to always follow your vision.”

That vision has carried St. Louis to 11 TDs in four games this season and 872 yards (218 per game). But he isn’t a workhorse back for the Rams; his highest number of carries in a game so far just 13.

St. Louis is still adjusting to the eight-man game, Washington said.

“He’s getting there,” the coach said. “He’s getting used to eight-man, that once you break it, it’s wide open. He’s also getting acclimated to playing both ways, the conditioning.”

For St. Louis, it’s still the same game.

“I just love the game of football,” he said, “the discipline, the hard work and dedication.”

St. Louis said he has received a letter from Charlotte but is concentrating on academics and his final season of high school football before thinking about a college football career.

The Rams have five regular-season games left. If they run the table to a third straight state title, the streak will be at 36.

“You want to remind the guys of it,” Washington said of the run of success. “You want them to know that you don’t want the streak to end on your watch. Your want to be able to pass the baton over to the next group of guys the next year. You want them to take pride in the streak and keep it going.”

Every week is a new week, a new challenge, Washington said. And he doesn’t hesitate to remind his team of that fact.

“We keep them humble, let them know that we are still chopping wood and haven’t peaked yet,” Washington said. “We want them to enjoy the streak, but you have to go back to work every Monday.”

Back to work, looking to tack on one more victory to a winning streak that is in its third season.