Golden State Warriors forward Kevin Durant hoisted the Larry O’ Brien NBA Championship trophy with NBA Finals MVP honors earlier this year. The Seat Pleasant native was one of many players from the area to leave a mark in the NBA, including Steve Francis, Ty Lawson, Michael Beasley, Jarrett Jack, Delonte West and the 2017 No. 1 Overall NBA Draft pick Markelle Fultz. Prince George’s County is widely acknowledged as a hotbed of NBA talent.
However, the county is also known for its high school football players who eventually became NFL superstars that rival the level of talent that has achieved success in the NBA.
“There are a lot of great players and great guys out here,” University of Michigan Head Coach Jim Harbaugh told the AFRO about the talent pool in Prince George’s County after a Football Exposure Camp at Bowie State University earlier this year. “I’ve been really impressed with the football character in the area here.”
One of those players is former Friendly High School standout quarterback Joe Haden, who played in Fort Washington, Md. for the Patriots before he became a pro bowl cornerback with the Cleveland Browns. Haden threw for more than 7,000 yards and tossed 80 touchdowns during his high school playing career while operating as a safety on the defensive end leading his team to a 3A State Championship title in 2006 with an undefeated (14-0) record.
Since then, Haden has been a pro bowler for the Browns and is known for being a shutdown corner, a player capable of closing off entire sections of the field to opponents. He started his NFL career in 2010, and has accounted for 19 interceptions, 377 tackles, four forced fumbles, four fumble recoveries and two sacks. Haden was named Defensive Player of the Year by Sporting News in 2009 and was a former unanimous All-American at the University of Florida and former BCS National Champion.
Another player who found NFL success was Suitland High School alumnus NaVorro Bowman. Even though he didn’t play his senior year due to an injury, he had more than 160 tackles as a junior with nine sacks and rushed for 1,200 yards and 22 touchdowns. Before the 29-year-old from District Heights, Md. became a dominant linebacker for the San Francisco 49ers, he enjoyed success with the Rams in high school.
“It is super to have players make it to the NFL,” Suitland Head Coach Ed Shields told the AFRO. “When you see kids work hard, you want to see them reach their dreams. We love it because they represent us, but they helped us when they were here, and we look at them helping us going on by showing other kids that they can do it too.”
Shawne Merriman was arguably one of the best NFL linebackers in the game during his stint with the San Diego Chargers in the 2000’s. He used to play for Frederick Douglass High School as a versatile player who even lined up at the tight end position on offense. As a three-year starter, Merriman tallied eight career interceptions, and had 158 tackles, three forced fumbles, two blocked punts and two interceptions as a senior. He was selected as a First-Team All-State and Maryland Defense Player of the Year by the Associated Press during his final season with the Eagles.
During his stint as a pro, Merriman won the AP NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year award in 2005 and then followed up that performance by becoming the NFL sacks leader the following season. The three-time pro bowler finished his eight-year career with 257 tackles, 45.5 sacks, an interception and eight forced fumbles.
Former NFL running back Brian Westbrook and current Miami Dolphins defensive end Cameron Wake were nearly unstoppable in the county. Both players were major contributors at DeMatha High School in Hyattsville, Md. Westbrook, a Fort Washington native, garnered All-Prince George’s County honors for the Stags, and his career took off from there. Westbrook was inducted into the Philadelphia Eagles Hall of Fame and won the Walter Payton Award in 2001.
Wake still enjoys success in the NFL even though he started his professional playing career in the Canadian Football League where he flourished as a player and was named to the CFL All-Decade Team (the 2000s). So far, Wake is a three-time pro bowler and has accounted for 288 tackles and 81.5 sacks.
Another player who stole the show in Prince George’s County was former Crossland High School star linebacker, Julian Peterson. Peterson was an extraordinarily physical playmaker for the Temple Hills, Md.-based Cavaliers, and he won the Chesapeake Classic Football Game MVP in 1996.
The former NFL first round pick (16 overall) went on to have a stellar NFL career that included five pro bowl appearances, and he finished his career as a three-time All-Pro. Peterson racked up 756 tackles 51.5 sacks, 21 forced fumbles, and eight interceptions during his 11-year career in the pros with the San Francisco 49ers, Seattle Seahawks, and Detroit Lions.
“I think it is very competitive in the county now,” Oxon Hill Head Coach Craig Jefferies told the AFRO. “We’ve had over 70 colleges come through the last three years recruiting [Prince George’s] County kids, and this area is becoming a hotbed for talent. I think the tables are going to turn and I do feel like football is on the rise in this area.”
Nevertheless, more involvement at the grass roots level will ensure basketball is not the only sport that the county is known for producing top-flight caliber players. “Once a school gets one kid out of the area, they [scouts] come back and then they decide to get two or three,” Dr. Henry A. Wise Jr. High School Head Coach DaLawn Parrish told the AFRO about the uptick in recruiting.