When you think about a dominant high school football team what comes to mind? Some may picture the blistering heat and sweet smell of barbecue smoke in the heart of Georgia. Others may picture sunshine, beaches, and palm trees in areas like Florida or California. These may be hot spots for good high school football, but why are you missing out on the other guys? What about the guys that live on hard concrete, take the subways to practice, and play in sunshine, rain, or snow?
With the draft nearby, Philadelphia natives Christian Barmore (University of Alabama) and Kyle Pitts (University of Florida) are projected to go in the first round. This would mark the first time two first round picks came out of Philadelphia since Marvin Harrison and Eddie George did it in the 1996 NFL Draft. This achievement is remarkable, but it also makes a statement for the city of Philadelphia more than many people realize.
Creating the Door
If an outsider asks when Philadelphia began to produce so much football talent, natives like Al Crosby will bluntly tell them, “It’s always been here.” Crosby is the head coach for the Neumann Goretti Saints in South Philadelphia and has seen talent in Philadelphia for decades.
“The thing that changed Philly football was the PIAA allowing us to play in the state tournament,” Crosby said.
In 2003, the PIAA (Pennsylvania Interscholastic Athletic Association) allowed Philadelphia public schools to join the league, and shortly afterward, Catholic schools did the same. It did not take long for Philadelphia private and Catholic schools to make noise in the tournament. Since 2013, St. Joes Prep has won the PIAA state championship six times, while Philadelphia public schools have won once in four recent appearances.
Before making it to Neumann Goretti, Crosby was the head coach at Imhotep Charter School in North Philadelphia from 2012 through 2015. During that time, Crosby took his team to the state tournament three out of four seasons and capped off his career with a 40-3 victory over Cathedral Prep to win the PIAA State Championship in 2015.
Crosby served as a catalyst in developing talent for all high school football players in Philadelphia. Crosby and trainer Keita Crispina founded the Philadelphia Skills Academy, a training organization that developed local players of all levels. The program has helped to develop several future NFL players like Will Parks, John Reid, and Daryl Worley. The number of college prospects is even greater and has pushed high school players to develop their skills all year round.
Unlike southern and western states, Pennsylvania does not have the luxury of warm weather all year. Because of this high schoolers can not compete as much. Crosby decided to find a way around this. He founded PA Playmakers, a 7-on-7 football team that allowed Philadelphia high schoolers to compete in the summer and travel around the country.
Finding a Way Out
As Crosby and other Philadelphia coaches began to create resources for kids, the success came in abundance. Within his four year stint at Imhotep, Crosby produced more than ten Division 1 prospects including DJ Moore, the current star wide receiver for the Carolina Panthers.
The proof is in the pudding when it comes to the success Crosby has been able to build. But, while the hard-nosed coach can define his success by his impressive record, championship titles, and Division 1 alumni, Crosby believes there are other measures of success.
“The same way I can be proud of a kid like DJ Moore making it into the NFL is the same way I can be proud of another kid for becoming an auto mechanic and providing for his family,” Crosby said.
Coaches have been able to show players that there is a way out of any struggle, whether it be on or off the field. They take on a fatherhood role and go beyond teaching X’s and O’s to their players. In late August, the PIAA canceled fall sports for Philadelphia public schools. Teams were unsure of what this would mean for their program. Philadelphia coaches like Devon Johnson decided to overcome the effects of a pandemic.
Johnson is the newest coach at Imhotep and it took less than a month for COVID-19 to make an impact on his job. The pandemic put a pause on the momentum built for a fall season and instead presented a challenge for coaches. Along with the threat of COVID-19, crime in Philadelphia hit unbelievable peaks with over 400 homicides occurring in 2020 according to the Philadelphia Police Department. The increase in gun violence affected young people greatly during the pandemic and Johnson wanted to keep his players away from any distractions in the city.
“Our approach was to keep them as busy as possible,” Johnson said.
The Imhotep coaching staff found several ways to keep their players focused and on track to develop. Johnson and his staff held team workouts virtually. They also held group meetings with each position regularly. Johnson even quizzed his players through SurveyMonkey and Kahoot to make them masters of the offense and defense.
Leaving a Legacy
Later in the year, The PIAA ruled Philadelphia Public Schools could play a spring season. Coaches were relieved to hear this, but wondered how the dynamics of a spring season would work. Johnson feared that he would be playing with a different roster. Imhotep has several players who have signed their letters of intent to college programs or hold college offers. Ultimately, all of Johnson’s players came out to play in the spring with the objective of leaving a legacy.
“That’s what I talked to them about a lot, their legacy,” Johnson said. “How do they want to be remembered at Imhotep first of all? And then how will they be remembered in Philly football as well?”
After losing to Northeast high school last year, the Imhotep Panthers came out on top this year in a 33-7 victory to end the season. The win capped off the legacy that the seniors had built.
Leaving a legacy is something that all Philadelphia high school teams value. Coaches, players, and alumni find value in going out on top and setting a path for the next group. Angelise Stuhl, CEO of Philadelphia Sports Digest, spoke about that legacy that runs through players.
“St. Joes Prep this year had Marvin Harrison Jr. and Jeremiah Trotter Jr.,” Stuhl said. “They also had Jeremiah Trotter Jr.’s younger brother. If you’re another team in the state and hearing those names you’re automatically shaking.”
Harrison Jr., now playing at Ohio State, and Trotter Jr., now a linebacker for Clemson, are both following the legacies of their fathers. Marvin Harrison Sr. was a star wide receiver at Roman Catholic and went on to become an NFL hall of famer. Jeremiah Trotter Sr. was in the NFL for more than a decade and is a member of the Philadelphia Eagles hall of fame. Despite the talented family trees, Stuhl said what makes these high schoolers even more impressive is their personalities.
“Those kids are so humble, and when you speak to them after games they are so well-rounded,” Stuhl said.
Stuhl and the coaches said these young men are not successful because they play football. Instead, these are successful people who just happen to play football. Johnson described Philadelphia coaches as a jack of all trades. They have to be a psychologist, a father figure, an Uber driver, and more.
He added that there was a certain level of respect for Philadelphia coaches because they understand how hard it is to manage the lives of several kids in the city. Players and alumni have shown the same level of gratitude and it is why college commits come back to finish a spring season. It is also the reason why guys like Will Parks and John Reid come back to train with Philadelphia high schoolers and mentor them in their NFL off-seasons. The road to success is anything but usual for Philadelphia high school football teams and it is why hard work, dedication, and giving back are so important.
On Thursday night, when the NFL is showing promos of the top players in this year’s draft they will most likely describe Barmore and Pitts as “physical freaks,” highlighting their strength and speed. But Philadelphia players have something else that makes them some of the best players to recruit.
They have heart.