From a ragged E. Germantown field, a high-school football team reaches for greatness
Less than an hour before Monday's sunset in East Germantown, four teenagers stood next to a car parked near E. Chelten Ave. and Anderson St.
There, they changed out of the clothes they'd worn to school that day and pulled shoulder pads, helmets and more from the sedan's trunk.
Before long, they – and dozens of peers in red or black jerseys – trotted onto the nondescript plot of land at the Lonnie Young Recreation Center, a soggy, unremarkable patch that shows no signs of being a football field.
A discarded spray-paint canister and drug baggie sat on grass and mud that does not feature yard lines, end zones or goal posts.
This, even though it is used by both a Northwest Raiders youth program that consistently earns plaudits in Pop Warner league circles and a high-school team – this high school team – for which the most major of major college programs have sent coaches to try and attract talent to its rosters starting next summer.
Striving for success
Just two days earlier, the kids — and the 14 men who coach them — had won the first-ever state-playoff game in Imhotep Institute Charter High School Panthers history.
Just five days from that moment, this group of focused kids predominately from Northwest Philadelphia will play host to the Wyomissing Spartans.
Their foe, a Reading-area squad, also marched through its football season, carrying a 14-0 record into a PIAA semifinal showdown that will be played Saturday afternoon at Benjamin Johnston Memorial Stadium right here in Germantown.
To say that such games are rarely played at Philadelphia Public League sites would be an understatement.
Since the Public League joined the PIAA in 2004, one city-based Philadelphia team, West Catholic, has won a championship (more on that later).
But to hear Imhotep's players and coaches tell it, they knew they could get here. They expect to win this, and next, Saturday to become state champions.
"Look at our situation here," said their head coach, Albie Crosby. "I'm blessed to be on a football field with lights, to have grass. But, a lot of high-school teams got white lines down, artificial turf. Our kids don't. We don't allow that to be something that's a negative to us. Everything's a positive. I think it's all part of a life lesson."
Before the fiery but overly receptive Crosby briefly excused himself to chat with the University of Wisconsin assistant coach there to watch the Panthers' conditioning day, he surveyed the field and summarized what he sees.
"This," he concluded, "has become a Mecca of sorts."
Season in review
If you look at what the Imhotep Panthers have done this year solely by the numbers, their aforementioned undefeated record sits near the top of the story. But there's more.
In six of their 14 wins, the Panthers did not cede a point.
The most points scored against them in a game is 13. That was on Aug. 31.
The closest any team has come to beating the Panthers was a Chestnut Hill Academy side which lost the game 34-10.
For the season, Imhotep has outscored its opposition 638-73.
In eight games played at the Germantown stadium where they'll host Wyomissing on Saturday, the overall scoreboard reads Imhotep 377, Everyone Else 40.
Much, but not all, of that dominance has to do with the number 33. That's the uniform number worn by running back David Williams. He lives a few blocks from that practice field. It's his first year at Imhotep, though.
The star player
Both he and Crosby came over this year from the West Catholic team which won the city's lone state title in 2010, but lost a heartbreaking title game to Lancaster Catholic last season.
On the final play of that game, which was played when uncertaintly shrouded the school's future, the opposing defense intercepted a pass right in front of Williams with just nine seconds left.
Crosby acknowleged there was certainly some controversy involved with a nationally recognized player worthy of interviews with ESPN switching schools.
He maintained it was about less than poaching talent and more about the uncertainty that surrounded West's future coupled with the fact that Williams could play at a school, under a familiar coach, without having to spend $7,000 to go to school across the city.
Williams has attracted offers and interest from 49 Division 1 college programs. In the week before last Saturday's quarterfinal versus Pen Argyl, coaches from Arizona State, the University of Miami, Penn State and South Carolina visited Williams and his family.
Then, he went out and ran for four touchdowns. Crosby took him out of the blowout game in the third quarter.
Pretty much everybody Williams comes in contact with wants to know where he's decided to go to college, but he has a few more campus visits left. (Full disclosure: I suggested he give full consideration to the University of Notre Dame). He said he hasn't yet decided and doesn't expect to make an announcement until January.
"Once it's time for practice and the games," said Williams, who does not hide the NFL aspirations befitting his NFL speed, "I just tune all that stuff out."
Not a one-man show
When you watch the Imhotep Panthers practice, you see structure. You see a plan. On Tuesday, they showed all the hallmarks of having a coaching staff that already studied their upcoming foe. They ran drills specifically designed to counter Wyomissing's star running back/linebacker Alex Anzalone, who has committed to Notre Dame.
Crosby is yelling when he sees first-team offensive lineman jogging when they should be sprinting. He urges the second-team defense to "pop 'em in the mouth" if the effort doesn't pick up. (It does.)
Much attention is paid to a tight end who misses consecutive blocks and passes.
There were knowing smiles when a writer asked about an offensive formation that he's never seen watching college or NFL games.
"This is all part of our vision. We put an image in the kids' minds in January, when I took this job, that they would have an opportunity to compete for a state championship," Crosby said. "They've been hearing it, envisioning it. Hopefully, we'll be able to receive it.
"We talk about the law of attraction, that good things happen when you have those thoughts, always being positive. These young men, they started believing they could achieve these goals. The hard part is done. The easy part is letting them go out and enjoy this run."
While Williams gets much of the media attention, Crosby points out that running back Eerin Young has also played an integral role rushing for 1,100 yards in a season when he's become part of the passing game as well.
Quarterback Andre Dreuitt works behind a college-sized offensive line, too.
During practice at the rec center, Crosby proudly pointed to at least four seniors who could land in D-1 college programs next year. Then, he picked out a half dozen underclassmen with remarkable potential.
He said the college interest that Williams has drawn to their games and practices week in and week out has rubbed off in a good way.
"You can see Notre Dame, Wisconsin, Ohio State on TV and someone might say, 'Hey, you could go to Ohio State.' The kid will say 'Cool, alright,' but it's not real," Crosby said.
"But when they're walking through the building, they're at games, you say, 'Wow, this really can happen,'" he continued. "Now, they all have a plan. 'This is what I want to do so when Miami comes through that door, they're asking for my name.' That stuff makes it real."
If all goes according to the Panthers' game plan this weekend, Crosby, Williams and the rest of the team will vie for a state championship in Hershey on Dec. 15. There, they would face the winner of Friday night's Richland/Aliquippa game.
They're not exactly looking ahead past a Wyomissing team that has shut out its two playoff opponents, compared to the 15 points Imhotep has allowed.
However, when they huddle up at the end of practice, Crosby reminded them that study hall starts at 8:30 the next morning before offering a pep talk steeped in the confidence he has in his team, a self-assurance that he hoped they have, too.
"There aren't too many people playing football right now. [Wyomissing] is intimidated. They're trying to figure out how to stop us. You're four touchdowns better than them. Four. You're the best team in the state," Crosby said.
"I can't wait until Saturday. I. Can't. Wait. Until. Saturday. And, I can't wait until Dec. 15. Just to see your smiles. Just to see your tears of joy," he continued. "You might think that you're the toughest guy in the world, but believe me, when you hoist that trophy, you'll feel a tremble. Cherish this time."
Then, the Imhotep Panthers jumped to their feet. They make a circle, their arms pointed toward the middle of the pile and upward.
Before they retreated into the dark of an East Germantown night, they chanted one word: "Family."
Saturday's state-semifinal game between Imhotep and Wyomissing starts at 1 p.m. at the Benjamin Johnston Memorial Field, Woolston Ave. and E. Sedgwick St.