FORESTVILLE, Md. -- Dana Prince knows the story may sound a little corny, but to him, the grandfather of four-star offensive tackle Damian Prince, it was a sign of things to come. As the story goes, Dana Prince used to occasionally drop his grandson off at elementary school in Mitchellville, Md., and whenever he stopped by to pick Damian up it would be pouring rain. But as soon as little Prince strapped on his seatbelt, the rain would cease – just like that.
"It happened like every time. He'd get in, and the rain would stop; he'd get out and it would start again," said Dana Prince of his grandson, who more than a decade later would sign Feb. 5, 2014, to play Division I college football at the University of Maryland. "I talk about that story to this day and Damian just shakes his head (laughs). But I knew then there was something special about him, not only down here on earth, but up there with God himself."
Maybe the story is just the embellished fancy of a proud grandfather, but in the grand scheme of things it matters little. Fact is Damian Prince was a bit different than other children growing up, and that remains true today as he's in the top two percent of high school football players in the country.
After Prince's mother, LaKeyia Chappell, who lived in southeast, D.C., sent her young son to live with his great grandparents, Willie and Jean (both now deceased), in a much safer area in Mitchellville, the youngster quickly caught the attention of those closest to him with his intellect and inquisitiveness. His grandmother, Gloria, described an eight-year-old Prince as an "old soul" who carried himself like someone much older and wiser.
"If you were just talking to him and didn't know how old he was, you'd think you were talking to someone much older," Gloria Prince said. "The things he knew, the things he'd say, you just wouldn't think a child so young would say those things. Like, he'd be watching TV and he'd pick things up about the characters that wasn't obvious and you'd say, ‘How'd you know that?' He was very, very bright."
He was a clown of sorts too -- at least according to his grandparents, who said Prince always kept them laughing. He'd throw out witty comments every now and again, but more than anything else Gloria and Dana Prince remembered the improvised dance moves, imitated from early 2000s pop artists.
"Well he thought he could dance," Dana Prince said. "At least that's what they call dancing these days (laughs). But oh man, he'd be all out, stepping to those tunes."
Evidently he caught the fashion bug as well. Influenced in part by his grandmother, Prince had been known to wake up in the wee hours of the morning in order to stand in line at Footlocker for the newest Jordan shoes. He's also not opposed to perusing through the aisles of high-end department stores for Polo, Calvin Klein and the like.
"He'll say, ‘You [Gloria] did it, I didn't know anything about this stuff until I talked to [his aunt] and you,'" Gloria Prince said. "But he loves to dress well. And the shoes? It has to be Jordans. Absolutely has to be."
"Clothes, dancing, just being energetic – I was always different growing up," Damian Prince said Feb. 5 at his Signing Day ceremony. "I was never one to follow anybody even as a kid. I went after my own experiences. I was an energetic kid who just wanted to be different."
While he dabbled in fashion, dance music and other such activities, it was athletics where Prince truly showed promise. But not, as it turned out, on the football field. In middle school he took to basketball initially and played AAU for several years, performing well enough to catch the eye of nearby private high schools. It wasn't until eighth grade when he first donned the pads for a local rec league program.
"I remember he was a standout right away with football because he was so big and strong," Dana Prince said. "And at that point he had a choice, basketball or football, and he chose football. His father [Damian Devaughn Prince I, who was shot and killed in the mid-90s] played football, and I played football, both of us for H.D. Woodson (Washington, D.C.), so he wanted to give football a try."
Prince credited his great grandfather, Willie, for introducing him to the game. Willie Prince, a beloved figure in the Forestville community, became a father figure for his great grandson, pushing him both academically and athletically.
"It wasn't just football, it was everything," Damian Prince said. "He had a great influence on me with everything; he taught me everything. And those things he taught me, I still carry with me to this day."
After just one year of gridiron rearing, local high schools began pursuing Prince in earnest. All of the Washington Catholic Athletic Conference powers came calling, but instead of attending a known program such as DeMatha, he opted for a school that had a less storied tradition, Bishop McNamara. Willie Prince, whom Damian called "dad," apparently preferred McNamara after talking to the school's principal, but the younger Prince didn't need a ton of convincing.
"He had a chance to go to DeMatha, but being a young man, he liked that McNamara had girls," Dana Prince said. "He thought he'd do well in school there, but he liked that the girls were mixed with the guys."
"Ha, yeah, I wasn't a fan of being around just boys all day," Prince said, laughing. "But McNamara, it was a great school and I had a chance to play varsity football as a freshman, that's mainly why I went there."
It probably wouldn't have mattered where Prince went to school; he would have excelled either way. At McNamara, he came up to varsity as a freshman and started almost every game the next four years, twice earning all-state and all-metro honors. (Not to mention he became a fairly solid shot-put thrower in track-and-field). And while his development from a raw freshman to a more technically sound senior was readily apparent, his grandparents noticed more subtle changes about Damian Prince the person.
"He has really matured. He's not the normal 17 year old. He's come into his own, especially the last two years," Gloria Prince said. "Like his homework, he'll do things ahead of time instead of procrastinating. I'd tell him, if you have spare time, even if it's not due, just do it. And that's what he's done; he's really developed in that way."
Of course, Prince had been forced to mature following the deaths of his two most influential figures, Willie and Jean Prince. Two years ago, Willie Prince stopped by a local drug store he had frequented before noticing a broken down motorist on the side of Route 193. While attempting to help, Willie Prince was struck by another vehicle and was killed.
"I had contemplated not even playing sports anymore after [Willie] died. I didn't even know what it felt like to be playing the game and him not being in the stands," Prince said. "But he was all about never giving up, and I didn't give up… But if there was one thing I could change about [Signing Day] it would be for him to be here to see me now."
Then, just last spring, Prince's great grandmother passed away after a long battle with liver cancer. Needless to say, it forced the 17-year-old to grow up fast.
"It's just hard. Losing people that helped build your character and instilled in you how to live," Prince said. "It was hard going through this process without them to be honest."
Prince certainly matured off the field, but in-between the white lines he developed into the state's No. 1-rated recruit by his senior year. Neither Gloria nor Dana Prince can ever recall having to push Prince to practice or work on his craft. They said he dedicated himself from Day One, intent on improving his craft and proving he was one of the best at his position.
Just last year, Keith Goganious took over the McNamara program after Bevil was let go. Prince, who was the first Mustang Goganious met after stepping onto campus, left an immediate impression on his new head coach.
"He's been working since his freshman year and I'm proud of what he's done and where he's going," Goganious said. "He set an example for others to follow and he's a tremendous leader… I keep telling guys hard work leads to positive things. You have to get up and get it every day. If you want to be up here next year, you have to work for it, and Damian was a great example of that, and a great representative of Bishop McNamara…I'm so proud of him."
Of course, there were road bumps along the way. McNamara was not very successful during Prince's first three years, despite the big man's efforts at left tackle. On top of that, Prince had some, shall we say, "eating issues" earlier during his career. Prince evidently loved his great grandmother's home cooking, and even with after-school conditioning, he packed on the pounds. Last summer, however, he opted for grilled foods over the fried variety and lost about 40 pounds.
"He really thinks about what he puts into his body now – pasta, grilled chicken, lean steak," Dana Prince said. "And he's just so much more knowledgeable, much stronger and he picks up things quicker. His body, the way he prepares it, it's so much better."
Dana Prince can recall the moment he knew Prince had taken his game to another level. Last fall, during the third game of the season, Prince was lined up at defensive tackle with the opposition inside the Mustangs' 5-yard line. For four downs, they tried to ram the ball over the goal line. And on four straight downs, Damian Prince plugged the gap.
"I was just so proud, seeing him come up big like that," Dana Prince said. "He did a little dance after the fourth-down play, and he really got into it. It was really a sight to see (laughs)."
By this point, Prince had already garnered more than 40 scholarship offers from some of the most renowned schools in the country. The Princes suddenly had 50 times more recruiting letters than bills, their mailbox stuffed like you only see in cartoons. The phone began ringing day and night, with names like Saban, Muschamp and Meyer on the other end.
"It was hectic, but it was exciting," Gloria Prince said. "I kind of expected it though, because he worked so hard. But Damian, he was real laid back about it; he didn't really stress all that much."
Despite procuring scholarships from the nation's elite, Prince held his hometown school, Maryland, in the highest regard. It was the Terps who were first to offer after his freshman year. It was the Terps who recruited him the longest and the hardest. And it was the Terps who offered the opportunity to be near the family he held so dear.
So, on Feb. 5, National Signing Day, Damian Prince faxed in his national letter of intent to Maryland head coach Randy Edsall, effectively sealing him into the hometown school for the next several years.
For the boy who once stopped the rain, there was no better choice -- for his future, and for his family.
"My family, they've stood by me the entire time and they're very important to me. Now, they'll be able to see me play every weekend if they want to for the next three, four years," Prince said. "No one means more to me than my family."
The Growth of a Prince
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