This is the first in an occasional series about the St. Frances Academy football program that has routinely been ranked among the best teams in the country over the last few years.
Messay Hailemariam takes a moment, after hitting the barbershop for a head shave and beard trim, to sit down for breakfast at Pancake House in Canton, not far from the townhouse-turned-dorm where he lives with several of his St. Frances football players.
He orders French toast and uses sugar-free syrup — he did his cardio and weightlifting routine shortly after waking up at 5:15 on this Friday morning — and turns his attention to his phone. It is a rare quiet moment for the coach of a high school football team that unexpectedly became a national power but now faces an unenviable task. That evening, the Panthers (1-4) will finally play their first game of the season in Baltimore but must face the No. 1-ranked team in the country, the powerhouse Mater Dei program from Santa Ana, California.
Hailemariam, in his third year since returning to his role as head coach after the departure of Biff Poggi, is thinking about plays and matchups, of course. But first he must coordinate what has become a sprawling, unlikely operation. The football team for the oldest continually operating Black Catholic school in the United States, located in a humble building wedged into East Baltimore, requires $300,000 to run and a dedicated staff and volunteers.
Hailemariam had already been in touch with the team’s head of operations, Ryan Burbrink (most people call him Coach Burbs), who coordinates transporting the 45 players living in school housing to school on time for breakfast in the cafeteria at 8 a.m.
During the meal, he’s constantly texting his parent volunteers and assistant coaches who’ll be transporting cases of water and Gatorade to the school for that afternoon’s pregame meal.
With his bill paid, he jets to the nearby Target in his 2009 Mercedes-Benz truck, the one that his players tease him about as being more suited for a soccer mom, to purchase pickle juice and Pedialyte that the players will consume before kickoff to ensure they start the big game properly hydrated.
He’s also coordinating the pickup of the pregame meal with Ericka Allen, a volunteer who treks in from Aberdeen with an $825 order from Chick-fil-A.
“I started volunteering and stumbled into the role of the team’s travel coordinator,” said Allen, who also assists Hailemariam with community outreach. “I book all the flights, hotels, ground transportation and team meals when we’re on the road. Some say I’m also the unofficial team mom.”
His errands over, Hailemariam heads to school. His team, and the final planning for a game he hopes will turn the season around, await.
Hailemariam was born in Addis Ababa, the capital of Ethiopia. His parents earned engineering degrees from Syracuse University and returned to their homeland to work and raise a family. But when the country’s emperor, Haile Selassie, was deposed in 1974 and died in 1975, unrest and uncertainty gripped the country and they moved first to Cameroon for a year and then to London for six months. They then emigrated to the United States, settling in with family who lived in Montgomery County.
His parents took him to a local football practice thinking they were signing him up for soccer, but once he donned his first set of pads, he fell in love with the game.
He became a good prep football player, but when he walked into the offices of the coaches at the University of Maryland during his freshman year, they laughed at the 5-foot-7, 150-pound former high school wing back when he told them he was going to make the team.
“Back then you couldn’t tell me that I wasn’t going to make it to the NFL,” Hailemariam said with a pronounced grin.
The team had already completed summer camp, and tryouts for walk-ons were two weeks away. But the bold freshman attended every practice as a spectator until tryouts began.
“The coaches noticed that,” he said.
Of the 150 students who came out for the team, only two were invited to join the practice squad. Hailemariam was one of them. He says he dutifully showed up for every practice, every training session, every workout.
As a freshman in 1992, after being recognized as the practice player of the week, he was allowed to dress and travel with the team for a road game against Penn State, a 49-13 blowout loss. But the thrill of standing on the sideline in uniform, surrounded by nearly 100,000 rabid Nittany Lions fans, made an impression on him that has never faded.
When he graduated in 1995 with a degree in family studies, he began a 17-year journey as a high school assistant football coach.
“That first year volunteering as a coach at High Point High School changed my life,” Hailemariam said. “Playing football and being a walk-on at Maryland, being allowed to be around the program although I never played, changed the trajectory of my life. I knew I wanted to make an impact on young people’s lives coaching this game that I loved.”
He sold window siding to make ends meet. By 2008, he owned a profitable chain of fitness facilities and had a lucrative side hustle training college prospects in advance of the NFL draft, but he still yearned to be a head coach.
That goal was put on hold in late 2010 when his 3-year-old daughter was diagnosed with a potential deadly form of skin cancer.
“That changed my entire perspective and life trajectory,” he said. “It was the most agonizing experience ever. I prayed nonstop and asked for three things when she was undergoing surgery. I prayed that I wouldn’t have to bury her, that I would see her graduate and that I would one day be able to walk her down the aisle.”
Now 15 years old, his daughter is a sophomore in high school who runs cross country and is a member of the dance team.
Three months after his daughter’s recovery, St. Frances contacted him about accepting its head coaching position. He jumped at the opportunity of taking over a program that had gone 1-39 during its brief history.
“They had lost 33 in a row, and that only win was a forfeit,” Hailemariam said. “And my first two games as a head coach we lost by a combined 80 points. That third game, we had a miracle comeback to secure our first victory and then went on a 30-game winning streak, winning back-to-back MIAA C conference titles.
The program is in a different place now, but the rhythms of game day remain the same.
When he arrives at school, Hailemariam hands his credit card to an assistant coach to purchase a shoulder harness at Dick’s Sporting Goods for an injured player who will need it for the evening’s game.
As Hailemariam enters the football office, his assistant coach and defensive coordinator, Justin Winters, more popularly known around the school as J-Dub, is curled up in a fetal position on a new leather couch trying to sneak in a quick nap.
But calling the room an office is a stretch. It is small with spartan gray walls, with one flat screen that is showing Mater Dei’s offensive plays. Championship trophies sit on the floor collecting dust. A small folding table holds a computer. A larger white plastic table in the middle of the room is littered with a toolkit, antiquated laptops, food containers with half-eaten meals, bottles of Gatorade, water, hot sauce and Purell, paint cans and an assortment of recruiting mail from Auburn, Texas A&M, Tennessee and Virginia Tech, among many others.
In the adjacent room, equipment manager Dave Dunn — Coach Dave — is making sure everything is in place for when the players start trickling in to grab their helmets, shoulder pads and other protective gear. St. Frances has 28 uniform configurations; against Mater Dei, the Panthers will wear all black.
Hailemariam greets his assistants. He projects an understated positive energy on game day. He speaks softly, smiling with an infectious energy. He’s coached an underdog team before, of course, but St. Frances’ recent history more often had it playing the role of intimidating favorite.
Last season, the Panthers, ranked No. 2 in the country heading into their final game, lost a late-November showdown 27-16 against IMG Academy. That cost St. Frances a shot at playing in the high school national title game.
Over the previous two seasons, St. Frances lost only two games overall — against a supremely difficult schedule.
At practice a few weeks back at Patterson Park’s Utz Field, the team is joined by its unofficial mascot, Kodak, a 3-year-old pit bull terrier that is savagely barking at a group of frightened squirrels that scurry for their lives.
“That’s our dog over there,” says one of the players as he takes a break from defensive back drills.
Kodak’s owner, defensive line coach Ian Thomas, was asked by Hailemariam to bring him to practice and chain him to a nearby fence.
“Messay wanted the guys to see his attitude, how he can listen, follow instructions and be under control,” Thomas said. “But, when need be, he can turn up in an instant. He’ll turn that switch and attack, and that’s the mentality we have to have, that dog mentality.”
Schools in the MIAA A Conference had refused to play the Panthers over the last few years, citing health and safety concerns for their players. Suddenly, the East Baltimore school that sits across from the city detention center was forced to play a national schedule.
In 2022, the Panthers traveled over 8,500 miles, playing in Illinois, Texas, Florida, South Carolina, Hawaii, Ontario and Connecticut.
But this year, having lost a bevy of talent to the NCAA Division I ranks, St. Frances returned only 10 seniors.
And, due to a plethora of injuries combined with their youth, the Panthers stumbled in ways that Hailemariam had become unaccustomed to. This fall they had lost to elite national programs Buford (Georgia), Chaminade-Madonna (Hollywood, Florida), East St Louis (Illinois) and last year’s eventual national champion, St. John Bosco (Bellflower, California).
But Hailemariam had seen this coming, often pulling aside quarterback Michael Van Buren, who’s rated among the top seniors in the country and has committed to play at Oregon next year, to be prepared for a different kind of season.
“With us losing so many seniors from last year’s team and us being so young this year, Coach Messay told me throughout the offseason to be prepared for adversity,” Van Buren said, “and that, when it hits, you have to be strong enough to confront and withstand it to fight through it.”
That helps to explain why Van Buren’s comportment, confidence and swagger on Friday make it seem not like the Panthers are down but instead like St. Frances is walking into the evening game against the biggest and baddest team in the country on even footing.
“This year has been a learning curve,” Hailemariam said. “The last two years we graduated 58 seniors, all of whom went on the earn scholarships at Division I schools. We’ve had three starting seniors on the offensive line, all big-time college prospects, go down to injury. The sad thing is that there are a lot of people locally that are happy to see us in this position. But that’s OK because we teach our kids that life’s storms will eventually visit upon us. It’s how we respond, how we bounce back, that matters.”
Of course, Hailemariam had a grand vision for his program at St. Frances. He just didn’t know how to make it happen.
Until lightning struck.
In 2015, St. Frances was facing Gilman, the big bully on the block at the time coached by Poggi. Gilman was routinely ranked as one of the best programs in the country, sending its players to elite college programs and some eventually to the NFL.
During a storm delay, Poggi and Hailemariam got to talking.
The St. Frances head man had heard rumors that the Gilman faculty and administration were complaining about the school’s emphasis on football. Poggi, a self-made hedge fund multimillionaire who was on the St. Frances board of trustees, was not a child of privilege and understood the struggle of growing up in Baltimore.
“I asked him if he was about to leave, and he said he was considering it,” Hailemariam said. “I told him, if he decided to come over here, I’d step aside and be one of his assistants. I said, ‘Let’s get it going and get some kids some opportunities that they might not have otherwise. Let’s help them have a platform that they wouldn’t be able to access otherwise.’”
Poggi had been considering a change.
“No human being I have ever heard of has escaped death,” Poggi told ESPN in explaining his decision to leave Gilman for St. Frances. “We’re all going to the same place. And at some time all of us are going to ask ourselves the question: ‘What difference did we make for the least of them?’ ... I decided I did not want to water-ski behind yachts. I wanted to do something else.”
The independently wealthy Poggi, who has his own jet, a staggering array of profitable business investments and a sprawling estate in one of Baltimore’s most affluent suburbs, invested $2.5 million of his own money to upgrade the program, according to ESPN, some of which went into purchasing and refurbishing those townhomes that the school uses to house players who come in from outside Baltimore, along with city residents who come from difficult financial and home circumstances.
“I see St. Frances as a drop of dye in the bucket of Baltimore, and it’s going to spread, and we’re going to do it one kid at a time, one year at a time, one team at a time,” Poggi told ESPN. “We’re going to level the playing field. We’re going to send them to college, they’re going to get their degrees and then they’re going to come back and make a difference.”
In 2017, the school finished 13-0 and was ranked as the fourth-best team in the nation, defeating MIAA A opponents 342-50.
Those teams stopped agreeing to play the Panthers.
“For years, we used to get beat and take some serious whippings,” Hailemariam said. “I wasn’t crying or complaining, nor was my team. We took it. Our coaches and players showed up every day determined to get better. It was cool with everybody when Gilman was a nationally ranked program and destroying everybody in the league. But now, when the poor Black Catholic school was doing it, all of a sudden it was a problem.”
When Poggi left the program to become Jim Harbaugh’s associate head coach at Michigan and took his considerable resources with him after the 2020 season, he handed the reins back to Hailemariam with plenty of his corporate and individual donor contacts to make sure those funds keep rolling in.
“We’ve had 157 players go on to play major D-I football,” Hailemariam said. “Forty-one have completed their master’s degrees, and 17 of them have earned two master’s. We’ve got four current players in the NFL and, in the 2024 draft, we’ll have 10 to 12 St. Frances alums in the mix.”
The Panthers have no home field, no blocking sleds, no tackling dummies. They’re forced to practice in Patterson Park or at local rec centers. The day before the Mater Dei game, a scheduling mixup forced them to bus to C.C. Jackson, a recreation center near Pimlico Race Course in a sketchy part of Park Heights.
None of that matters to the players or coaches. The program has some of the trappings of privilege as it jets from Florida to California to Hawaii, but at heart it models itself after the city it calls home: tough, relentless, undaunted.
And, finally, the Panthers would get to play in front of their fans.
Mater Dei’s players come out of the locker room at Johns Hopkins’ Homewood Field for warmups frothing at the mouth. They unleash a nasty stream of profanities at the St. Frances coaches and players.
Before the opening coin toss, as Tropical Storm Ophelia encroaches, both teams meet at the 50-yard line, separated by their coaches.
One St. Frances staffer is recording the scene on his phone as a Mater Dei player yells directly at him, “Ya’ll never should have put us on your fucking schedule! Send me that video after we whip your asses!!!”
But by halftime Mater Dei’s bravado has dissipated. It leads 7-0, but its only score has come off a defensive touchdown. The St. Frances defense has stifled their prolific offense.
Despite their offensive struggles, the Panthers fight.
Assistant volunteer coach Torrey Smith, the former Ravens pass catcher and Super Bowl champion, roams the sideline, staying in the ear of Van Buren and the squad’s wide receiving corps with passionate encouragement.
In the cramped, musty locker room at halftime, Smith’s kinetic body energy suggests he’s about to don a uniform and play in the second half.
“I need the best half of football we’ve ever played in our life,” Smith yells before pulling the offensive unit aside. “If we’re going to win tonight, it’s going to be because of this group right here. I need to see everybody’s body language shift. Everybody looks defeated over here. It’s the same expectation as always. The opportunity exists. O-Line, you’re working your ass off. Is it going to be perfect running the ball? Hell no! Those guys are really good too. If you’re a dog, you have to be a dog all the time, straight up! The right dudes to get it done are all right here, but it ain’t going to happen just because you want it to. One play at a time, one step at a time. Together, right?”
A collective chorus roars, “Yessir!!!”
On their first possession of the second half, the Panthers go 82 yards in nine plays, with Van Buren’s 34-yard pass to Jermiah Koger setting the table for a 4-yard touchdown run by Nicholas Harris, tying the score at 7.
But another St. Frances turnover leads to another Mater Dei defensive touchdown. The Panthers get a few chances in the fourth quarter but can’t capitalize and Mater Dei seals the game with an 8-yard touchdown run, it’s only offensive score of the game, with less than a minute left.
In the losing locker room, the scene is not what you’d expect. Morbid faces are nowhere to be found. The players are angry that they lost, but they understand the magnitude of what they almost accomplished, despite the loss.
“In this game of football, I hate to use the term moral victories,” Hailemariam said. “I will say that that was a hell of a performance against the so-called No. 1 team in the country, especially from the defensive coaching staff and players. On offense, we just have to turn the corner and we’re almost there. Next week is going to be an opportunity for us to do that. You understand?”
They don’t hesitate for an instant.