It’s halftime of the Wyandanch football team’s season opener, and nothing has gone right. The Warriors are trailing by two touchdowns. They’re committing bad penalties, fighting among themselves, slamming locker doors. The sound of frustration fills the crowded locker room. Finally, one voice rises above it all.
“Settle down, fellas.”
It’s the voice of Dwight Singleton, Wyandanch’s third-year football coach. He’s squeezed his 55-year-old body through the sea of shoulder pads and into a corner of the room.
Nobody stops what he’s doing, and as the chirping continues, Singleton announces his presence again, this time significantly louder.
This time the room goes quiet.
Singleton lets the silence hang in the air. Now he knows he has his team’s attention. “We can’t give up,” Singleton says softly.
He scans the room, making eye contact with the players crowded around him. “You hear that? We can’t give up.”
Singleton talks briefly about what went wrong in the first half. He doesn’t talk about football X’s and O’s. He focuses on his players’ arguing with their opponents, the officials and themselves, and their general lack of focus.
The longer he speaks, the louder he gets.
“You have to learn how to overcome adversity,” Singleton says. “You don’t quit on yourself and you don’t give up on your teammates.
“And you guys are giving up.
“Just think about what life is going to be about. When things don’t go your way in life, you don’t give up.”
At this point, Singleton is shouting.
“So you guys really need to make up your mind,” he says, pausing again for effect.
“Are you going to give up?”
Singleton repeats himself.
“Are you going to give up?”
This time a handful of players muffle a response: “No, Coach.”
Singleton tries again.
“Are you going to give up?” he screams.
The players scream in unison, “No!”
“All right then,” he says. “Then you guys talk about it among yourselves. Coaches, outside.”
Singleton has a favorite saying: “Where you start doesn’t have to determine where you wind up.”
In football, if you have a bad first quarter, a bad half, it doesn’t mean you have lost the game. But the saying fits in life, too.
Singleton said he believes his responsibility goes far beyond the win-loss column. He wants football to do for his players what he says it did for him. He measures the program’s success by how many players enroll in college.
It’s what he thinks about as he makes the daily 80-minute drive from his home on the East End to Wyandanch, where he also works as a teaching assistant and athletic director.
“I’m not here saying every kid who steps on this football field is getting a scholarship to college,” Singleton said after a recent practice. “I know that’s unrealistic. But what I do believe is that if a kid has a desire to go to college, he should have that chance, and I’m going to do everything I can to push him that way.
“That’s my passion, and I’m a passionate person.”
Singleton grew up in inner-city Washington, one of nine children. His father was a carpenter and his mother a homemaker. His parents emphasized the importance of an education.
Thanks to football, Singleton and five of his brothers were able to go to college on scholarships, something he said his parents could not have otherwise afforded.
Singleton was the quarterback at Theodore Roosevelt High School, a school known as a football powerhouse. But the school was underserved and lacked the resources to provide the equipment and facilities many of its opponents had.
Singleton was recruited by coach Johnny Majors to the University of Tennessee, where he was a teammate of future Pro Football Hall of Famer Reggie White. After two years, he was asked to switch to defensive back and decided to transfer to Virginia Union, where he played quarterback for the final two years of his college career.
He spent eight years as an elected representative on the Washington, D.C. Board of Education, which oversees the capital’s 115 schools. He also was an assistant coach at his old high school.
He moved to the East End of Long Island in 1998 because his wife, Sandra, wanted to return home. He went back to school and earned a teaching degree.
Singleton took over the Wyandanch team three years ago. After going 1-7 in his first season, the team finished 5-4 last year and made its first playoff appearance since 2000.
THE DRIVE TO SUCCEED
Allon Littlejohn, 19, is a freshman at Hudson Valley Community College in Troy, New York, about 180 miles from Wyandanch. Littlejohn and three of his Wyandanch teammates credit Singleton with pushing them to continue their football careers in college.
“I wouldn’t be in this college dorm without that man,” Littlejohn said, “and neither would my three roommates.”
Littlejohn says Singleton found the school for the four players, contacted the football coach, got them a meeting, drove them up three times, found them off-campus housing . . . and then drove some of their parents up, too.
“Basically, where we’re from, Wyandanch, it’s a hard town,” Littlejohn said. “A lot of kids on the team, they go through a lot of stuff. Coach Singleton, he was like a parent. He would pop up at your house. No matter what you need, he’s going to be there. He showed us he had our backs.”
Littlejohn and his three teammates are redshirting this year. They hope to get their grades up, get stronger and join the team in the spring. Most importantly, as far as Singleton is concerned, they’re in school.
“They wouldn’t be up there if not for his pushing and nagging and driving them up there and driving the moms up there,” said Cynthia Alcala, 59, the mother of another of the players there, Isaiah Sirleaf.
“He took a car and drove us moms there once. Where would they be if they weren’t there in school? They would probably be right here in Wyandanch, doing nothing, probably.”
Hudson Valley CC football coach Mike Muehling had not met Singleton before the Wyandanch coach cold-called Muehling trying to get players in his program. But they have gotten to know each other since. He said Singleton calls to check on the players.
“I know this,” Muehling said. “There aren’t as many coaches as you’d like to believe who will give up multiple days of their time to drive kids up here to get everything taken care of that they need to be here and in school.”
‘HE SEES THE BEST IN YOU’
Christian Flowers and Enrique Douglas-Farrow also credit Singleton with helping pave the path to college. Flowers is playing football at ASA College in Brooklyn. Douglas-Farrow plays at Alfred University in Western New York.
“He sees the best in you,” Douglas-Farrow said. “He’ll put everything in to get that out of you — his faith, his effort, everything.”
Arthur Flowers, Christian’s father, remembers Singleton sitting down with his son last year and rehearsing how to talk with college coaches.
“He takes a real personal interest in the kids,” he said.
A NEW GAME PLAN
Wyandanch’s football program has long lacked stability — a football coach hasn’t stayed on the job for more than five years in two decades — but Singleton says he’s committed to the school, and people believe him.
“Some kids will say I live in Wyandanch as if to suggest that’s some scenario that you have to cave into,” Singleton said. “I’m just trying to uplift the mindsets of young people who have not been exposed.
“I try to explain to them, ‘Hey, look, I’m from Washington, D.C. Do you know anything from Washington, D.C.?’ ”
Littlejohn, one of the Wyandanch players now at Hudson Valley CC, said: “You know our school history, we’re not like a winning school, and he came proposing all this stuff and I’m like, ‘Well, that’s not really going to happen.’
“But he showed us the game plan, and it worked.”
Littlejohn has a goal. He wants to play two years at Hudson Valley, then has his sights set on the University at Albany.
Eric Dennis, a junior running back on this year’s varsity team, wants to play at Stony Brook. Another junior, Elliott Burkes, told Singleton he wants to make it to Ole Miss.
Singleton encourages them all to dream big. After all, where you start doesn’t have to determine where you wind up.