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March 5, 2011

D.C. program thriving thanks to 'Positive Choices'

WASHINGTON, D.C. - - In front of almost 100 high school and middle school coaches from throughout the Washington, D.C., and Baltimore areas, Randy Edsall spoke about the University of Maryland's new vision at a coaches' clinic at Friendship Collegiate Academy. Specifically, the new Terrapins head coach talked strategy and his goal of recruiting prospects that fit Maryland both athletically and academically.

The crowd seemed impressed, to say the least.

Among those in awe was the director of the coaches' clinic, Aazaar Abdul- Rahim.

Rahim has been the head coach at Friendship Collegiate since the charter school opened eight years ago. The school was formerly known as Carter G. Woodson Junior High and sits directly next to a housing project near Minnesota Avenue.

During the crack epidemic 20 years ago, a turf war between New York and D.C. gangsters took place on those very grounds. This was when Washington was known as the "murder capital of the world" and no one who valued their lives ventured anywhere near Minnesota Avenue and Benning Road NE.

Positive influences like community, friendship and football? They didn't exist.

But since then the area has been cleaned up. Now, Friendship Collegiate Academy is producing standout football prospects and hosting coaches' clinics that can attract the head coach of a major university.

Friendship, which has 1,150 students in grades 9-12, has produced over 20 Division-I prospects in its eight-year existence. The 2011 class saw 14 prospects sign with a college, seven of whom went D-I. That has as much to do with Rahim's ability to develop the players as it does with his ability to get them to care about grades and SAT scores.

"We've come a long way," Rahim said. "When you show that you care, and the players understand you care … then they will give all that they have for you athletically and academically."

This year figures to be more of the same. And this time Friendship has an All-American on the horizon. Potential five-star prospect Eddie Goldman (6-foot-4, 305 pounds), who already has over 40 Division-I offers and has been invited to both the U.S. Army All-American and Under Armour All-American games, is considered the best defensive tackle in the nation. He's joined by potential Division-I recruits like linemen Jordan Davis, Dondre Whitmire, Quincy Dickens and Cody Young-Brown; running backs Isaiah Hayes and Bobby Huey; defensive back Albert Reid; and wide receiver Antonio Huff.

"It's great that we are sending guys D-I," said Rahim. "But it makes me more happy to be putting guys in college, period, whether that's D-I, D-II or D-III. Without a full scholarship offer, it's highly unlikely any of these kids would go to college since our school is 70-percent under the poverty line."

To think, just a few years ago these kids wouldn't have had a chance growing up around Minnesota Avenue.

How did so much change happen in so short a time?

Rahim attributes it to the revitalization of neighborhoods and communities. Law enforcement cracked down. The gangs were forced out. The housing projects were condemned and in their place came high-dollar condominiums.

But more to the point, non-profit organizations -- like the one Rahim himself created, "Positive Choices" -- spoke directly to the youth. Positive Choices is a foundation that deals specifically with youth development.

Rahim's father, Omar, also created a foundation called "Cover 1", although this one focuses on football training. Cover 1 places an emphasis on developing defensive backs -- Omar played cornerback at Kansas State and had a brief stint in the NFL in the 1970s -- in the area, including Joe Haden, Jr., who was recently selected in the first round by the Cleveland Browns.

Now, both Omar and Aazaar train top-level collegiate athletes in Del Ray Beach, Fla, in preparation for the NFL draft. They also offer free youth-football camps with the help of former NFL players, who focus on peer mentoring.

And it's not all football and preaching, either. There's an educational aspect to this, highlighted by strategic planning to rid the area of crime and violence.

So far, the fruits of Omar and Aazaar's labor is paying off.

"My expectations and goals are different now," cornerback Lorenzo Fisher told the Washington Post at last year's Signing Day ceremony, where he announced he was going to Ohio University. "I know I'm going to finish college now. I'm going to have a college degree."

Rahim, who grew up a couple of blocks from Friendship in Lincoln Heights, attended Dunbar High and played for legendary coach Craig Jefferies (he's now at New Mexico). Rahim excelled on the gridiron and received a full scholarship to San Diego State, where he was a three-year starter at corner. More importantly, he earned a bachelor's degree in sociology and a master's degree in counseling.

Years later, he's taken his talents to Friendship. Now Rahim is not only a football coach but also a guidance counselor and athletic director. It hasn't always been easy, especially when it comes to dealing with charter school rules.

"Our biggest problems is getting games," Rahim said. "Although we are sanctioned by the DCIAA, we do not have conference affiliation. Therefore we have to schedule a lot of teams from outside of the area."

Friendship has played powers such as DeMatha, Good Counsel and Linganore from Maryland, Massillion and St. Ignatius from Ohio, St. Peter's from New Jersey, Valley Forge from Pennsylvania and Martinsburg from West Virginia.

"The schedule has been grueling," Rahim said. "But in order to build a program you have to take on all comers. So since we don't have a conference championship to play for, or even a home field to call our own, National Signing Day is our championship day. That is a big celebration day for our school and this community. It really feels good to see these kids go to college."


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