The cloud of controversy hovering over the 43rd annual Turkey Bowl dissipated Thursday in favor of clear blue skies and a championship game that came down to the final seconds.
Dunbar High School won its second straight D.C. football title in a thrilling 12-8 victory over the Academies at Anacostia High School, a team that learned only Sunday it would play in the Thanksgiving Day classic.
Woodrow Wilson High School lost out on its chance to play in this year's Turkey Bowl after DC Public Schools learned one of its players was not a city resident after he was arrested in connection with two armed robberies. The team was forced to forfeit the two games that the student played in, giving Anacostia an unconventional birth in the championship game and highlighting an ongoing struggle within city schools to keep residency fraud at bay.
For Anacostia players, coaches and fans, they felt they deserved to play in the game more than Wilson because they played by the rules.
"If you are a criminal and you can't go by the rules, then that's it," said Rick Jameson, an alumnus of Anacostia, who said he played for the Indians in the Turkey Bowl three decades ago. "They really need to get more serious and tighten up on eligibility."
As the heavy underdog, Anacostia had two chances in the final minutes to take the lead but fell short. The close game, played at Eastern Senior High School in Northeast, was much to the relief of school officials, who had to make the call to keep Wilson out after it defeated Anacostia.
"I think everyone accepted this," said Clark Ray, the district-wide athletic director for the city.
Despite the circumstances that brought the two teams together, the schools and their fans were delighted by the game, which for 43 years has become as much of a Thanksgiving Day staple as turkey and stuffing.
"It's a great tradition," said Stanley Exum, whose grandson, Darius Brown, is a junior defensive tackle for Dunbar. "And there's just great camaraderie between the players."
Even though the well-fought game had its fair share of penalties, jawing and late hits, Anacostia players graciously congratulated Dunbar on its back-to-back titles. For Dunbar, who came into the game as the favorite, the victory was not tainted by the late change in opponents.
"It didn't matter who they put in front of us, we were going to come out and play," said Dunbar star quarterback Lamel Matthews. "A lot of people don't get a chance to play in the Turkey Bowl. This game means a lot to the city."