Just 24 minutes remained.
In a season forged on the uncertainty of change, a 13-game effort initially shrouded by worries that the merging of two Northwest Philly schools might stir decades-old neighborhood rivalries.
In the final game of an athletic campaign which saw young men wear the purple-and-gold of West Oak Lane’s Martin Luther King High School onto the gridiron and rush, pass and sack their way to the Cougars’ first-ever Public League football championship.
That all went unspoken Thanksgiving Day in a cramped locker room that once belonged to the erstwhile Germantown High Bears, which meant it once belonged to several MLK Cougars who transferred across Uptown when the School District of Philadelphia shuttered their 99-year-old place of learning in June.
All on the line
At this moment — shortly after high noon on Nov. 28, 2013 — the Cougars’ fiery assistant coach Kevin Norris commanded everyone’s attention.
This is the kind of guy who wears shorts on the sideline even on frigid days like this one. The kind of guy who made zero effort to hide his displeasure with the 22-6 lead that their new Thanksgiving rivals, the highly talented Imhotep Institute Charter High School Panthers of East Germantown, took into the halftime break.
That the Panthers starters were changing into red sweatsuits from their game uniforms — a prevent-injuries effort made since the state playoffs loomed in just two days — mattered little.
Pride. That’s what mattered to Norris.
“You just saw what they call the best team in the city, maybe in the state. You can’t tell me they’re a better football team than we are, a better family,” Norris bellowed. “This isn’t about what they did. It’s about what you didn’t do. This s— is a fight, make no mistake about it, a fight. It’s about who will be the kings of Uptown, you or them, for a whole year.”
He then told his charges that he saw some opposing players “on the field twerking and dancing” when a MLK Cougar went down with an injury in the first half. Twerking. And dancing. Disrespecting is what they were doing. Disrespecting him. Disrespecting us. Disrespecting you.
Enough with being tough guys, thugs, with neighborhood-rivalry smack talk. Be tough on the field. Now. Or forever hold your tongues. They don’t help you up off the field, so don’t you dare help them up. Two quarters. Then, the season’s done.
“They’re as soft as drug-store cotton,” Norris said. “They have no respect for you. … Your Facebook, your Twitter, your Instagram, your text messages, are all going to blow up about how they beat you.”
That’s when Head Coach Ed Dunn ordered the players to huddle up with their position coaches for their second-half marching orders.
From there, a 16-point deficit turned into a last-millisecond victory, the excitement of which will never be fully captured by the opening “Legacy Bowl” entry that now reads “2013: MLK 32, Imhotep 30.”
Pregame and the first half
Between 1976 and 2012, the Thanksgiving-morning game at Benjamin Johnston Memorial Stadium decided bragging rights between players, faculty and alumni of Germantown and MLK High Schools. The latter won just 11 of 37.
From the start, when Dunn went from GHS assistant coach to MLK head coach, this year was different.
Many players, including highly touted wide receiver Delane Hart and lineman Dontae Angus, accompanied Dunn. A feature in the New York Times led a documentary crew to West Oak Lane to create an entry for April’s Tribeca Film Festival.
That winning streak came to a screeching halt on Nov. 14 with a 52-8 loss to the Archbishop Wood Vikings in the PIAA AAA District 12 Championship game. But they had one more game to go: Thanksgiving vs. Imhotep, believed by some to be Pennsylvania’s best.
There was friction between opposing coaches during pre-game warmups, a beef over who’d claim the home-side bleachers turned into a challenge: After the kids are done playing, the coaches will take the field and settle things.
Those terms went unaccepted, as did the suggestion of boxing it out, but the tension spilled over into fiery pre-game speeches by both Dunn and Imhotep’s head coach, Albie Crosby. At stake: Winner takes bragging rights and the home-team bleachers for the 2014 Legacy Bowl game.
After the anthem, the game began.
A long run by Imhotep’s Nasir Bonner set up a three-yard touchdown for teammate Mike Waters and a 6-0 Panthers lead with 8:50 left in the first quarter.
King responded with a 44-yard touchdown pass from quarterback Joseph “Broadway Joe” Walker to Delane Hart. The game was tied until Imhotep’s DJ Moore caught an 8-yard touchdown from quarterback Andre Dreuitt 11 minutes before halftime.
Before halftime, Walker would throw an interception that Imhotep captain Deandre Scott returned to the MLK 10-yard line.
Another Dreuitt-to-Moore touchdown with 42 seconds remaining gave the Panthers their 16-point halftime lead.
A second-half that made MLK memories
When the teams gathered in their respective locker rooms, the crowd of a couple hundred fans heard from the alumni groups. Former GHS Head Football Coach Michael Hawkins and Principal Margaret Mullen were there, too.
They spoke about how the GHS legacy will remain entrenched in Uptown history, and about putting the kids first. Imhotep wanted this game to happen so a team from Germantown would be represented on the field, thus keeping that legacy alive and giving the neighborhood a sideline on which to cheer.
“Germantown and Martin Luther King have come together to create one great school,” Mullen said. “We will always have Germantown in our hearts. It’s not going to end. We bleed green!”
Then, the teams returned to the field.
There was taunting — some of it, playful — directed at the Cougars when they circled up to stretch.
Then came some hard-hitting football, including one fumble-causing, should-have-been-flagged hit that forced the backup Panthers quarterback, sophomore Naeem Bonner, back to the sideline for a spell.
An Ishmael Dargan touchdown cut Imhotep’s lead to 22-12 with 3:41 remaining in the third quarter.
With 4:42 remaining in the game, MLK linebacker Jordan Alexander, a converted running back, scooped up a fumble and returned it for a long touchdown. The score was now 22-20, and the sidelines and bleachers were hyped.
A shade under three game minutes later, seeing their season close to ending with a loss, MLK coaches called for some trickery.
The quarterback, Walker, would run beyond the line of scrimmage without the ball.
Salvatore Henderson, a junior who missed about half the season because of legal entanglements that left an ankle monitor taped under his uniform, would throw the ball from roughly the 30-yard line. To Walker. The quarterback would score a receiving touchdown that gave MLK a 26-22 lead. Or did it?
That touchdown would be called back on a defensive penalty, thanks to some rulebook intricacies that made it impossible for MLK to decline the foul and take the score. So what did Walker do? He hit Henderson for a touchdown on the next play.
“How you like that?” Dunn screamed into the documentary cameras during a raucous celebration.
They got the ball back at their 39-yard line with 1:45 remaining. Ramir Johnson, a sophomore second-team running back, would break a long run, followed by two short runs that took him into the end zone.
It was now 30-26. The excitement from the Imhotep sideline could be felt across the field, and starters in red sweatsuits dancing in celebration could be clearly seen. It did not faze the Cougars, who bought into the playing-for-pride pitch.
“We still got one minute to go!” yelled Cougars wide-receiver Emmanuel Clark, who caught the two-point conversion on Henderson’s receiving touchdown.
Walker and a nifty catch by Hart led the Cougars to the Imhotep 35-yard line with 56 seconds remaining in the game. On first down: Incompletion. Second: Mark McCray hauls in a catch for a two-yard gain. Third: A clock-stopping incompletion.
Then, with just three seconds remaining in the inaugural Legacy Bowl, Walker was looking to the sideline when the ball was snapped. It hit him and fell to the turf.
Walker then picked that ball up off the ground, scrambled around and, after the scoreboard-clock buzzer echoed through the air, threw a last-ditch pass toward Hart.
Hart caught the ball at the two-yard line, a shocked expression initailly crossed his face.
He spun to his left to evade a tackle and dragged a defender into the end zone with him, just inches in bounds. That set off a frenzied celebration for a 32-30 win over an Imhotep team that immediately heeded Coach Crosby’s direction to line up for a respectful midfield handshake line.
“THAT’S WHAT WE DO!” screamed an MLK assistant coach celebrating with Walker on the sideline.
“ALL DAY!” was Walker’s intense response.
Imhotep knew they were returning to Johnston Stadium on Saturday for a PIAA playoff game. King ended its season with a 10-3 record and claim over the Legacy Bowl trophy until next Thanksgiving’s game.
“I don’t really know how to even explain how it feels,” said Hart of that catch after the game. “I saw the fumble, and that’s why I took off to the end zone. Don’t know what it was, but something told me to turn around. I looked back and there the ball was.”
As the teams huddled at opposite ends of the stadium before heading home for Thanksgiving dinner, Imhotep’s athletic director, Andre Noble, graciously and congratulatorily presented Dunn, MLK Principal Wiliam Wade and the team with the new Legacy Bowl trophy.
Dunn was overcome with emotion, choked up, telling his players how proud he was of what they’ve accomplished this year, surpassing every obstacle that presented itself to them.
“This is something you can take with you for the rest of your lives,” he said. “When you get knocked down, bounce right back up and ask for more.”
For his part, Crosby knew he was facing a talented Cougars team. After all, Public League titles aren’t just handed out. From his vantage point, he couldn’t see whether Hart got into the end zone; the celebration on the opposite sideline told him all he needed to know, though.
“I’m happy for them, and I’m happy for my kids, too,” he said. “We didn’t lose today. No injuries and we got a lot of players some experience on the field. Say we’d have won by 30 or 40, but had two starters get hurt: That would have been losing today.”
As the team made its way back into the cramped locker room where they heard an impassioned halftime speech, Dunn spoke to NewsWorks about his initial kicked-in-the-gut reaction to Imhotep’s late touchdown and the big picture.
“What you saw here was something on the football field,” he said. “Now, watch the next 20 years of these kids’ lives. We’re going to be there every step of the way. I’m so proud of them. Every last one of them.”
And then, Dunn and some of his assistant coaches stood outside the locker room, seeing all of their players off to Thanksgiving dinner.
Their first season was over, with no state-playoff game looming like Imhotep. But, one team event remained.
On Monday, they will get fitted for jackets. The back of those jackets will read something along the lines of Martin Luther King Jr. High School Cougars Football: PIAA AAA Public League Champions, 2013.