Was that a bit of a strut, a hint of a swagger in their step when Boston English’s football team returned to practice this week with more victories than losses? If so, who would begrudge them?
“Some might be feeling a little bit cocky right now,” center Jordan Carter observed as his teammates prepared for Friday night’s date with O’Bryant. “But it’s good.”
For a team that has faced a near-Biblical series of trials — whose tattered home field was deemed too dangerous to play on, and which had not won a game in two years — a two-game winning streak is a breakthrough.
English’s Bulldogs beat New Mission Sept. 21 for its first nonforfeit victory since 2009, and blanked South Boston, 14-0, last week for its first shutout in memory.
“We’re trying to stay humble and take it one game at a time,” said coach Chris Boswell, who knows that the road ahead will be decidedly more difficult.
Numbers are a perennial challenge at a school that had 300 candidates for the 1940 varsity but only 24 names on the 2012 roster. Most of them are first- or second-generation immigrants from places like Haiti and Honduras who had never seen a ball that wasn’t round.
“I was watching cartoons back home in Nigeria,” recalled player Francis Okoyo. “That’s the first time I ever saw a football.”
When someone suggested that he play football at English, Okoyo figured that meant soccer.
“What do I need a helmet for?” he wondered.
That’s Boswell’s first question to a neophyte: “Did you ever put on a helmet in your life?”
Tom Lamb, a member of the Massachusetts High School Football Coaches Hall of Fame, is in his second year as a volunteer assistant. He had won four Super Bowls and nearly 250 games during nearly four decades at Natick and Norwood, and rarely had to ask that question. Almost all of his players had been on Pop Warner teams and all came from the same town.
The English players come from all over the city and most didn’t know one another before they arrived at the sprawling building near the Arborway. Many of them come from family circumstances that are complicated at best. Persuading them to come out for football and play for a losing team is a constant challenge.
“It’s amazing to see what you have to do to be a head coach in the city,” said Lamb, whom Boswell calls his “compass and tour guide.”
Boswell doesn’t know from day to day how many players will turn up for practice in a school system where attendance habitually is unpredictable.
“We can’t overrule mothers,” he said. “ ‘Bobby didn’t do his homework,’ they’ll say. ‘He’s got to come home.’ ”
Ineligibility and injuries make each uniformed body precious.
“You need hip pads and knee pads,” he told one player who was en route to the practice field without them Tuesday. “I can’t risk it.”
With as few as 15 players on hand some afternoons, the coaches have to focus on the essentials. The playbook is so elementary that it can be scribbled on a wristband.
“Keep it super simple,” said Boswell. “Basic, fundamental football. Running, blocking, tackling.”
So far, it’s been working. The Bulldogs, who gave up 30 points per game last year, have allowed only 6 this year, and their 28 total points are more than they scored all season, when they were shut out seven times.
“I wasn’t surprised,” said quarterback Dhe’Jour Releford, who sports signature pink shoes. “I saw this coming.”
This season began with a forfeit to Brighton when only seven Boston English players had been cleared to suit up under the state’s concussion protocols.
“We did have enough kids,” said Lamb. “We didn’t have enough kids with paperwork.”
New Mission’s quarterback, running back, and fullback all had played for English before New Mission moved from Roxbury to Hyde Park this year and started a combined program with the Boston Community Leadership Academy.
“They knew all our signals,” said Boswell.
So the triumph over Southie, which had flogged English, 33-0, in their previous meeting, was a satisfying surprise.
“I was thinking, ‘Is this the same team we played last year?’” said Okoyo, who scored one of the touchdowns. “It’s 14-0 with two minutes left. We’re going to beat these guys.”
The experience and leadership of the upperclassmen have helped. Boswell sent out seven of them as game captains for the last coin toss before the referee reminded him that the limit was four.
“This is our time,” he told his players before the season.
So few of them had played in a winning game that they weren’t sure how to douse Boswell with a celebratory Gatorade bath after the first triumph over New Mission.
“They missed it,” he said. “But I tried hard to duck it.”
More challenging games loom, culminating in the holiday clash with Latin, which English has beaten only once since 1981.
“We take a step up each week,” said Lamb.
Right now, the view from the second step is wondrous.