It was already the second quarter of Friday night’s game inside Marcus Foster Memorial Stadium, yet several dozen of people still stood in line outside to get in while others lined the fences watching from afar.
Inside, the Simon Gratz High School Bulldogs were hosting the Martin Luther King High Cougars in the first game of the 2013 public-league football season.
With 10 minutes to go before halftime, the score was knotted at zero between the home team — which made a decent run in last season’s PL playoffs — and a visiting side that’s been the subject of much attention.
A football revival
Sure, the Cougars hadn’t had a good season in a while. One talking point had them trying to emerge from two frustrating seasons with just a pair of wins garnered via forfeit.
However, MLK stood as a totem of the shifting realities of Philadelphia’s public-school system, an angle that brought about an expansive New York Times feature story just weeks ago.
Highly touted wide receiver Delane Hart and lineman Dontae Angus — who has already committed to the University of Florida college-football powerhouse — were among those who transferred in from the now-shuttered Germantown High School.
Also coming over from GHS was head coach Ed Dunn, who was an assistant for the Bears, MLK’s heated Thanksgiving Day rivals.
Throw highly regarded quarterback Joseph Walker, who had transferred over from Mastbaum, into the mix, and it’s hard to blame MLK fans for holding onto high hopes tightly.
What happened four minutes of game time later only bolstered that optimism.
On a fourth-and-goal from Gratz’s 23 yard line, Walker slung the ball into the waiting hands of Hart, who bulldogged his way into the end zone.
This happened not far from where MLK Principal William Wade stood on the sidelines, taking in what many hope will serve as his school’s bridge over the troubled-district’s financial waters.
By halftime, the Cougars built a 14-0 lead. There was excitement and celebration on the sideline, despite numerous assistant coaches saying, “You ain’t won nothing yet.”
To be sure, they hadn’t.
Gratz came out after halftime like a team on a mission.
Within the first two minutes of the second half, Gratz cut the lead in half.
A long touchdown run, and successful extra-point fake, gave the Bulldogs a 15-14 lead with 10:36 remaining in the game.
“Hit everything that moves. Everything who isn’t in purple and gold. Everyone who isn’t your brother!” screamed MLK center Darius Hurst-Rodney in an attempt to rally his teammates. “We could be up by 14. We could be up 76 right now! Let’s go! Let’s go!”
It would not be enough.
With about five minutes remaining, the Bulldogs scored another touchdown — the final two on long plays after penalties were called against the Cougars.
Down 22-14, which is how the game would end, frustration settled in on the MLK sideline. Players were chirping at teammates who’d missed assignments; coaches were yelling at players to remain cohesive, to keep their heads in the game.
“Y’all not quitting now,” screamed Dunn during a late timeout, some of his players in tears on the sidelines. “I’m not going to allow you to do it.”
A defensive assistant rallied his charges with “the madness I see over here, I’m not seeing it on the field. It’s not helping us on the sidelines. Don’t take it out on your teammates.”
When the clock ticked down, the teams shook hands along the 50-yard line. The jubilant Bulldogs made their way to one end of the stadium to celebrate.
In the other end zone, Dunn did his best to convince his players all was not lost. Because, after all, it was just one game in a months-long season.
“Pick your heads up,” he said. “We showed what we could be in the first half. The silver lining is that they have to deal with us again.”
That last comment alluded to the fact that the teams could face off again should both qualify for the Public League playoffs.
“We’re gonna work,” Dunn continued. “That pain you feel right now is real.”
It was real for the wide receiver Hart who was in tears after the post-game talk.
“I didn’t want to lose,” he told his coach who’d pulled him aside through tears. “It’s my last opener in Philly and I [screwed] that up!”
For his part, Gratz Coach Erik Zipay opened with some harsh words when approached by a pair of reporters. Asked if he thought the highly touted lineman Angus was as good as advertised, he deemed him irrelevant to the result.
“Non-factor. I had a sophomore take him out of the game. Non-factor,” he said. “If he’s going to Florida, my kid should be going to [the defending national champion University of] Alabama.”
He then noted that there could be a rematch “if they [MLK] qualify for the playoffs,” before assuring that his words are often taken out of context so he wanted to be clear that the Cougars “are a good team. They’re doing good things over there.”
Walking off the field, Dunn told NewsWorks that it was a tough loss to stomach, what with turnovers making it nearly impossible to capitalize on a defensive squad keeping them within striking distance.
“Nobody was expecting anything from us, but we played a good game. We were up at halftime. In it until the end,” said Dunn, noting he didn’t think the attention from the NYT and a documentary crew from New York overwhelmed his players. “This story ain’t over. We’re fine. We’ll be right back at it.”
The Cougars will host Mastery Charter North at 6 p.m. on Friday at Benjamin L. Johnston Memorial Stadium, 1100 E. Sedgwick St. Mastery defeated Boys’ Latin Charter 21-6 in their opening game last week.