By Mark F. Gray
AFRO Staff Writer
In a town used to inauguration days, the dawn of a new beginning for professional football’s attempt at a spring league kicked off at Audi Field. Unlike the predecessors in the NFL, who 100 years ago wouldn’t consider Black players as their fledgling league started, the D.C. Defenders opened the second incarnation of the XFL by fielding a team where from the sidelines to the quarterback position the stereotypes that plague the senior circuit were put to rest in the nation’s capital, as former local HBCU players were in the center of the action.
The Defenders marched onto the field with a head coach and starting quarterback that are African American which was inconceivable just over a quarter century ago. Demographics of the moment had no significance on the game’s outcome, but it was an irony that couldn’t be underscored. It was magnified even more since their head coach was a former quarterback at the signature HBCU of the city at the close of the first week of Black History Month. The game’s biggest play was also made by a former CIAA star from Maryland’s oldest HBCU.
The D.C. Defenders opened their season with a 31-19 win against the Seattle Dragons. (Courtesy Photo)
D.C. beat the Seattle Dragons 31-19 six days after Super Bowl 54 was won by the Kansas City Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes, who joined local legend Doug Williams as the only Black quarterbacks to lead their team’s NFL world championships. Defenders head coach Pep Hamilton was an understudy for Maryland State Delegate Jay Walker in 1993 when Howard University won its first Black College national championship. The team he built from scratch and the fruits of his labor came together on a crystal clear football day in Southeast, D.C.
Hamilton’s college coach, Steve Wilson, who authored both HU National Championships in 1993 and 1996, is the special teams and cornerbacks coach. His corners intercepted two passes that were game changers. One thwarted a two point conversion attempt in the endzone in the first half. The other was returned for a 69 yard score that sealed the game in the fourth quarter.
Quarterback coach Ted White, who was Howard’s field general in 1996, is the Defenders quarterback coach and his grooming of former Ohio St. QB Cardele Jones paid immediate dividends. Jones, who led the Buckeyes to the first College Football Playoff National Championship in 2014, finished the game 16 of 26 for 262 yards and two TD’s.
Hamilton began his pro football head coaching career against a peer who had a brief, yet dubious tenure as a coach in D.C. Jim Zorn was 12-20 as head coach of the Burgundy and Gold from 2008 – 2009. He left the District after his team disappointed their fans with a couple of key turnovers and the inability to get critical stops defensively with the game on the line.
Former Bowie State tight end Khari Lee, who previously spent time with the Philadelphia Eagles, earned the distinction of scoring the inaugural offensive touchdown in team history on the Defenders first possession of the second half.
Jones, found the former Bulldogs standout with a 39-yard pass off a pitch from the run pass option out of the shotgun formation. After catching Jones’ pass Lee made two video games moves against Seattle’s secondary making the team’s first professional house call and restoring the enthusiasm to the building which had grown pensive with the game tied at 19, before the team ultimately won.