On game day, unlike other school days, the Charles twins don't fight their mother about getting up in the morning. They rise early, and go through their weekly ritual.
"I'm superstitious," Keith Charles says. A senior, he's the quarterback for the Dorsey Dons, the football powerhouse at Susan Miller Dorsey High School in Southwest Los Angeles. "I make a CD of the songs I like during that week. The night before, I do homework and I leave the girls" -- who his mother says call constantly -- "alone."
Marquise Charles, who plays defensive back and running back, also listens to his favorite music. "I watch tape of last week's game for about 30 minutes," he says, "and think about my assignment."
Their teammate, Jeremiah Johnson, a running back who also plays defense, eats a muffin, grabs the boneless chicken his mother cooks for him to nibble on throughout the day, straightens his green tie -- that's right, his tie -- and heads to school, anticipating his own version of the current movie "Friday Night Lights."
Jerome Johnson, Jeremiah's older brother, says that even though the film is set in West Texas, it's not that different at Dorsey. "It really happens like that," Jerome says, and he should know: he played linebacker for the Dons, was recruited two years ago by University of Oregon and is in the process of transferring to San Diego State.
Under the Friday night lights at Jackie Robinson Stadium in Rancho Cienega Park, on this day, the Dons will take on Locke High School in a game that means much more than touchdowns and tackles to these players, and to those who took this field in years gone by. The team has become a source of pride to the largely African American community -- the Dons have won four City Section championships since head Coach Paul Knox took over in 1985 -- as well as life lessons to the players and excitement to the fans. Particularly today: It's homecoming, and several thousand fans will be on hand for the festivities.
But, first, there's school.
7:30 a.m. Before the bell rings
These young men look nothing like football players.
"They have to wear ties on game day. In college, you have to wear a suit and a tie to away games and home games," explains Dons defensive coordinator Ralph Caldwell, one of three former NFL players who coaches at Dorsey.
"You pretty much present yourself like a student athlete, not an athlete student," Jeremiah Johnson says. "I come dressed like it's business."
7:52 a.m. First period
Players get no special treatment. They must attend class, and pass, to play.
"You don't see them skipping a quiz just because they're a football player," says April McNeel, the assistant athletic director, the team's academic advisor and one of a dozen Dorsey alumni who work at the school. All players take the academic classes that qualify them for the University of California or the Cal State system.
Several, like scholar-athlete Keith Charles, who attends one of Dorsey's three magnet schools, carry multiple advanced placement and honors courses. Every player graduates and most of those who aren't recruited go on to smaller universities or junior college.
9 a.m. Field trip
The players put on their green-and-white football jerseys and the cheerleaders dress in their Dorsey jogging suits for a presentation at Los Angeles City Hall.
Before the buses take off, Knox stops a player whose teacher has threatened to prevent him from going because he failed to turn in a couple of assignments. The work has been handed in and the signed permission slip is produced.
The students are expected to return to school by 10:30, but when they arrive in council chambers, they wait, and wait and wait. There are no seats. They stand so long that defensive end Courtney Williams' legs begin to cramp.
11 a.m. Still waiting
Knox is pacing. This is a distraction on game day. William Harris, one of the coaches who works with receivers, mutters, "We've got a game to prepare for" and goes to the front to see if they are next. They are not.
As the players congregate in the back of the overheated room, Councilman Tom LaBonge approaches them looking for Timothy Liburd, the team's center. Liburd is shocked. "He told me that he was a center also when he played high school football [at Marshall]," the young man says. "None of the linemen are ever singled out. We're in the back, behind the scenes."
Finally, Councilman Martin Ludlow salutes the coaches, team and the cops who worked the Dorsey-Crenshaw game last month. That game, an intense rivalry, was almost moved from the Dons' home field, located near the intersection of La Brea Avenue and Rodeo Road, because of concerns about gang activity in an area that the Bloods consider their turf. Their enemy, the Crips, claim the neighborhood near Crenshaw High School. Ludlow and Councilman Bernard Parks interceded, security was ratcheted up substantially, and the contest proceeded -- as with every other Dorsey football game this season -- without any problems.