A coach who has experienced what it’s like to reach the top of the mountain has taken over a Prince George’s County high school football program that has never strapped on its climbing gear.
Kenneth Amaker is aiming to change the football culture at Central High School, where he was named the head coach in April.
A graduate of Ballou High School in Washington, D.C., and Central State University in Wilberforce, Ohio, Amaker has been an assistant coach at Ballou, Suitland and Surrattsville. During his stint at Suitland from 2004-2010, the Rams used a bruising rushing attack to win Maryland 4A championships in 2004 and 2006. Amaker was the offensive line coach for those teams.
He takes over a Central program that never has qualified for the state playoffs — the only one of Prince George’s County’s 22 public school teams not to have done so. The Falcons are 31-88 during the past 12 years, including a 6-4 mark in 2000, their most recent winning season. Central was 5-5 in 2008, but has won just six games in the past three seasons.
Amaker will try to turn things around, having previously worked under the late Nick Lynch at Suitland, and more recently under Lynch's successor Ed Shields. Amaker spent the 2011 season coaching under Robert Harris at Surrattsville, helping the team reach the 1A South Region title game.
“Being at Suitland taught me something about the winning formula that works and how you arrange your program as far as offseason conditioning and academic support,” Amaker said.
Although Central never has amassed enough wins to make the playoffs, Amaker said he did not hesitate to pursue the job at the Capitol Heights school because he sees the building blocks of a successful program. He said the school has a lot to offer students on and off the field, with International Baccalaureate and French Immersion programs and a recently renovated track and football field.
But he also made it clear to his players that the football team will have work to do.
“In the first meeting I had with the kids I told them, ‘I can't tell you that we're going from 1-9 to a state championship in a year,’” Amaker said. “There's going to be a building process, and it starts academically with study halls and conditioning.”
Amaker and Chris Marsh, who will be a senior on the team this fall, said about 30 students have been showing up three days per week after school this spring for study halls and conditioning sessions. The attendance is an improvement upon last year, when Marsh said about 15-20 players showed up for offseason activities.
Amaker said he has made contact with Walker Mill Middle School and plans to visit G. James Gholson Middle School to meet prospective players who will be entering ninth grade at Central in the fall. Central did not have enough players to field a junior varsity team in 2011, something Amaker aims to change by recruiting incoming students.
Marsh, a Palmer Park resident who will be in his fourth year with the football program at Central this fall, said the new coaching staff has been well-received. Among the assistant coaches are defensive coordinator Vaughn McDuffie and special teams/linebackers coach Tino Fletcher, both of whom are coming with Amaker from last year's staff at Surrattsville. Derrick McDaniel is the quarterbacks/head junior varsity coach.
“The coaches have a lot of energy. I love it,” Marsh said. “I love the mindset. They tell us they'd never ask us to do anything they wouldn't do, and as a player you respect that.”
Marsh recalled a weight-lifting session during which defensive line coach Lamont Hunter challenged him by saying he would do twice as many repetitions on the bench press as Marsh did.
“I pumped out 10 on 185 [pounds], a nice little workout, and he does 20,” Marsh said. “I was like, ‘Woah, if I'd known that ... I should have done 15 or 20.’”
Marsh said he spent his middle school years playing for the Laurel Wildcats in the Capital Beltway League, where his teams lost only one game in two seasons. Then he joined the team at Central, which went 3-7 in 2009, his freshman season. A 2-8 season followed in 2010, and the Falcons were 1-9 in 2011.
“It's definitely a learning experience. It humbles you,” Marsh said. “But it gives you the motivation to work harder. Nobody wants to lose. Nobody wants to go 1-9 again. When guys think someone is going to quit on the weights, we all say, ‘1-9,’ and they push it out.
“It all starts with offseason workouts. You can't miss offseason workouts and then come in August and say, ‘I want to play.’ Next season, if someone misses a play and says, ‘My bad,’ that ain't gonna cut it. If you work your butt off in the offseason to make sure we're a good team, maybe you won't mess up and it would be a good play.”
Amaker, an algebra teacher at Suitland who hopes to have the same role at Central in the fall, said he is pleased by the players' response to the offseason program.
“The surprising thing is that after a 1-9 season, the kids are hungry,” he said. “They want to learn and participate.”
But he also acknowledged that it will take time to mold the Falcons into a winner, looking back at the development of Suitland's program, which went from doormat to dominant in 13 years under Lynch.
“Suitland wasn’t always Suitland, not until coach Lynch got there,” he said. “The kids at Central come from some of the same neighborhoods as the Suitland kids. Central was 5-5 a few years ago, so they've been competitive. We have to make sure kids are doing their school work and are eligible to play and we can start to turn things around.”