By Larry Blustein
FORT LAUDERDALE - In the 40 years that Hallandale Senior High School has been open, the facility in the northwest portion of the city has been through plenty of ups and downs.
While the school board nearly voted to close its doors over two decades ago because of a dwindling enrollment and low achievement in the classroom, many fought to keep this school open and find a way where it would be vital to the community.
Through the years, with its Magnet Studies programs and more emphasis put into education, Hallandale High School, one of the few community schools in this area of Broward County, began to find itself on the positive side. No longer were people looking down on lower grades and failing to achieve in the classroom. This was a school known more for what happened in the classroom than what happened on the basketball court or the football field - which was a welcome change to those educators who had campaigned to keep the doors open.
While athletics has always been a way out of the area for some students, sports had taken a backseat. At a time when football, and those championship basketball teams fell off, track and field had started to take center stage and the school began to attract those quality athletes who wanted to not only achieve in athletics, but also in the classroom.
With one of its own alumni, Dameon Jones, returning to the school to head up the football program, things began to turn around. No longer were the Chargers an average program with a few student athletes. This was quickly becoming a destination for quality football players.
This year, this young football dream has nearly 20 prospects that are being recruited by high level colleges across the country. Even with NFL standouts such as Butch Rolle (Buffalo Bills) and Davin Joseph (Tampa Bay and currently St. Louis) having played for the Chargers in the past, this program has never watched the talent that is on the roster right now.
Last Saturday night - with plenty of alumni and current student support on hand, the Chargers moved one step closer to winning a district title when they beat defending district champion Dillard High, 30-14, remaining unbeaten after seven games and staying among the elite in the state of Florida.
"This school had always had athletes, but never like the ones we have here now," said Jones. "We are sending more young men on to major colleges now than ever before. They are also getting it done in the classroom."
Last year, the school sent its first football player ever to LSU - when defensive back John Battle, who combined tremendous grades in the classroom with superb athletic skills, was awarded a scholarship to Baton Rouge. He is a freshman there this year.
This season, Georgia, FSU, Central Florida. USF, FAU, FIU and other schools have been watching this program, looking for those quality student/athletes who have been developed on this impressive team.
Even alumni such as record-setting running back Dan Harris, who is among the school's leading rushers and played back in the late 1980s, has been impressed at the way Hallandale has gone from an average program to one that is now home to some of south Florida's elite teams.
"You would be surprised at how many alumni still talk about this football program," Harris explained. "There are a lot of proud former athletes who are taking great pride in what has happened to this football team."
Kory Johnson Sr., a former standout football and baseball talent, is seeing the change firsthand with his son, Kory Johnson, Jr., a Class of 2016 linebacker, getting it done on the football field and in the classroom.
While the Chargers failed to make the playoffs the past two years, this is a season where things have fallen into place. This team could wrap up a playoff spot on Thursday night when they play Stranahan at South Plantation, and then next Friday at home, can win the district with a victory against state-rated Boynton Beach at home.
"It's really exciting to come out here and watch this program doing so well," said one-time football and basketball standout Reggie Samuel. "It has been tough over the years to see that things weren't going so great here, but as you can see from the athletes they have on the team, things have changed in a huge way."
This is a program that is very strong in every class. Seniors such as linebackers Sh'mar Kilby-Lane (FSU) and Juwan Taylor (Georgia) - as well as defensive end Dana Levine (Syracuse) and running back Taj McGowan (UCF) have already established themselves as among the best in the country. There are other seniors who have also left a mark - such as receiver Richie Cooper, receiver Bernard Scott and defensive lineman Michael Clarke, who have also contributed.
If you want to see Jones smile, talk about his junior class - where the school's all-time leading passer, Tyler Huntley, leads a group that also includes receivers Joshua Hammond, Neru Nshaka and Chris Cotto, linebacker Edward King and dozens of other top-flight prospects will ensure that this program remains relevant for years to come.
Sophomore Dontavis Butler, the son of former Hallandale standout Donnie Butler, and freshman lineman Sebastian Sainterling (6-3, 320) are also elite players this program will build around.
"After falling short the past two years, the win against Dillard was great," Jones pointed out. "But until we beat Stranahan this week and Boynton Beach on Halloween night, we really haven't accomplished anything yet."