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High school homecoming is back

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

High school homecoming is all about welcoming students back. This year, in many places, the pep rallies and football games have been more meaningful than ever. At one high school in Washington, D.C., homecoming was the largest event administrators have hosted since the pandemic began. WAMU reporter Debbie Truong has this postcard.

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP #1: Hey-oh.

DEBBIE TRUONG, BYLINE: Hundreds of students are gathered on the bleachers overlooking the football field at Theodore Roosevelt High School. They're here for a homecoming pep rally. The last time this many students were together at once, it was February of 2020.

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP #2: (Chanting, unintelligible).

TRUONG: But this isn't exactly like any other homecoming. There's no dance this year. It was canceled over COVID concerns. There is a homecoming football game and a dance-off at the pep rally. Cheerleaders perform. The school band plays. Students and teachers compete in a relay race.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: And now the moment we've all been waiting for.

TRUONG: It's time to announce the homecoming court.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Your queen, Zhanyah Johnson (ph).

TRUONG: Someone drapes a bright blue homecoming queen sash over 18-year-old Zhanyah Johnson's sweatshirt. Her crown glistens on top of her red hair. She's beaming.

ZHANYAH JOHNSON: During quarantine, I just felt alone. Like, everything was going downhill. And I came back to school, and I don't think I ever been this happy since.

TRUONG: Homecoming king Angelo Lanford is a wide receiver in the football team, the Rough Riders. He wears his orange-and-blue jersey as he poses for photos with Zhanyah. After more than a year of staying home, Angelo says school is starting to finally feel normal again.

ANGELO LANFORD: It was hard, I guess. Football was taken away from me for a year. It's a lot of stuff I had to be determined about to overcome.

TRUONG: Before the football season was officially cancelled last year, head football coach Christopher Harden fielded calls nearly every day from players wondering if they could practice.

CHRISTOPHER HARDEN: To have to keep saying no, it was kind of heartbreaking.

TRUONG: Harden says he's noticed a new maturity in some of his players this year. Many had to look after younger siblings when they were stuck at home last school year. He sensed a shift on the field, too.

HARDEN: That year off put a little bit of spark in these guys and have them a little bit more hungry and a little bit more dedicated because they have something that they love taken away from them.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Welcome to the 2021 Roosevelt Rough Riders homecoming.

TRUONG: The day of the big homecoming football game, it's pouring rain. Crowds are thin, but dozens of parents, alumni and current students still showed up. A win against H.D. Woodson High School would clinch the division title for the Roosevelt Rough Riders.

(SOUNDBITE OF WHISTLE BLOWING)

TRUONG: Roosevelt falls behind 12-0 early in the game. The frustration is palpable.

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP #1: Oh.

(SOUNDBITE OF WHISTLE BLOWING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: Let's go. Let's go.

TRUONG: But they slowly make up ground, scoring their first touchdown midway through the second quarter.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #4: Touchdown.

TRUONG: And after returning from halftime, Roosevelt pulls away with the lead.

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP #1: Yeah.

TRUONG: The Rough Riders lead the rest of the way, bringing the division title home for the first time since 1979. After more than a year of disruption, it's exactly the comeback they had hoped for.

For NPR News, I'm Debbie Truong in Washington, D.C.

(SOUNDBITE OF EL MICHELS AFFAIR'S "C.R.E.A.M.") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.