Beads of sweat run down Ed Dunn’s face as teenagers in purple and gold jerseys huddle around him in the late afternoon sun.
In just a few days, the fruits of a full summer of weight training and practice will be on public display when Martin Luther King’s football team travels to Coatesville for a Friday night season opener.
Today, the young head coach wants to make sure his players know that playtime is over.
“We got to have a good practice today by any means necessary,” barks Dunn. “We will be out here until 9 o’clock. I don’t care.”
Though he’d never acknowledge it, there’s considerable pressure swirling around Dunn’s second year at King.
Last season was as storybook as you can get.
After losing their first two games, the Cougars went on to win a public-league title, MLK’s first-ever in football.
The unexpected run — crystalized in an ESPN documentary — unfolded as students from archrival Germantown High School came together in the classroom and on the football field for the first time.
Budget cuts closed GHS last June, sending hundreds of students to King.
This season, the West Oak Lane squad naturally wants to win big again. Taking home a state championship has come up.
But after moving up a class, King will have to beat far stiffer competition. And all while, as Dunn puts it, with a big bullseye on its back.
“We’re not sneaking up on anybody,” he says.
A renewed focus
Big picture-wise, though, the neighborhood school is also, and perhaps more importantly, trying to build a program that’s recognized and respected in the city and across Pennsylvania.
The Cougars will need to have a solid showing this season to do that — to demonstrate that last year wasn’t just a flash in a pan, but the start of a culture shift.
“We’re trying to grow the brand of Martin Luther King High School,” says Dunn. “We want to shine a positive light on the school and show that really good things are happening in Northwest Philadelphia not only in the football field but in the classroom.”
When it comes to the gridiron, it won’t be easy.
MLK is now playing PIAA AAAA ball, the sport’s most elite class.
The Cougars’ 10-game regular season schedule is stacked with powerhouses like Archbishop Wood, who clobbered them 52-0 during a playoff matchup last season.
What’s more, the team is without a trio of superstars that drove last year’s success. They’re all suiting up for college squads this season.
The chance to shine
Talk to Dunn and his players, though, and they’re not nervous — not even a little. If anything, they’re excited for the challenge.
In they’re minds, King is a dangerous team and they don’t care if anyone else agrees.
“We can compete with anyone,” says quarterback Nasir Boykin.
They welcome others to think otherwise.
“The worse you doubt us, the worse the beating is going to be,” says linebacker Jayni Harris.
For Dunn, that confidence comes from knowing that the talent on this year’s squad runs deep. It’s spread out over all positions, not just concentrated in a few.
He says the team is also incredibly humble and hardworking. Everyone has something to prove.
“Everybody out here was either playing JV or was a bench player last year so they can’t really rest on the laurels of what happened last year. They were part of that team, but I don’t think these guys walk around like, ‘hey this is what we did,'” says Dunn.
Cornerback Donte Terry says that attitude will go a long way and could be part of what lands them in a state championship game this season.
“Talent-wise, all across the board, I don’t think there’s a team that has more overall talent than us and we work just as hard, if not harder, than any team in this city,” says Terry.
Kickoff against Coatesville High School is at 7 p.m. on Friday.