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  • From storied Penn, through the burgeoning women’s game and the fiercely contested Catholic League and onto the fields at the Linc, the game in Philadelphia reflects the city’s toughness, confidence and togetherness
By Jenny Vrentas
November 09, 2017

Welcome to The MMQB’s eight-part series, “Football in America,” in partnership with State Farm. We’ll take the temperature of the game at various levels—youth, high school, college, the NFL and more—in a changing landscape for the sport, in eight locales across the United States. This week: Episode VII—Philadelphia

Episode I: The Bay Area
Episode II: Carolina

Episode III: Minnesota
Episode IV: Dallas
Episode V: Arizona
Episode VI: Chicago

 

Video: Jim Butts
Social: Kalyn Kahler


Friday, 4:45 p.m.
Towne Building, University of Pennsylvania

About 100 college students wearing matching navy blue gym shorts and gray T-shirts with the slogan “One More” on the back are packed into a first-floor classroom in a red brick building more than a century old. Ordinarily this room would be used for an engineering class; the remnants of an earlier lesson involving something that looks like vectors remain on the chalkboard. Tonight, though, the professor is Penn football coach Ray Priore.

“What do we represent?” he asks the room. “You represent yourself. You represent your family. You represent your football brothers in this room, and a long legacy of people that have come before you.”

It’s the night before Penn’s homecoming game against rival Princeton, and the team just finished its walk-through across the street at Franklin Field, college football’s oldest venue. Penn football, which began in 1876, has played more games than any other team at any level. At the alma mater of John Heisman, Bert Bell and Chuck Bednarik, the past is always intertwined with the present.

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Priore still has a twinge of his native New York accent, but his pride has long since become rooted in West Philly. He’s been at Penn since 1987, and the coach since 2015, an era during which the Quakers have averaged an Ivy League championship every other year. His daughter is enrolled here as a senior sociology major. Midway through telling his team a story, about how the “junkyard dogs” on the ’02 Penn defense stifled the star receiver on undefeated Harvard the first day “College GameDay” came to an Ivy town, he pauses. “I don’t remember to take the trash out,” Priore says, “but I remember these stories by heart.”

In the back of the team meeting room are two alums from that ’02 team, as well as Gary Vura, the quarterback of the 1982 team that started Penn’s run of dominance in the Ivy League. Before that, Penn hadn’t won an Ivy League title since 1959, and had won just a single game the year before. But the ’82 season was the perfect storm: Penn got on a roll, and it just so happened that the NFL was on strike that season, so Eagles announcer Merrill Reese started calling the Quakers’ games. Penn became the toast of the city. When Penn beat Harvard on a controversial do-over field goal, the goalposts ended up in the Schuylkill River.

Pregame talk in the Penn locker room.
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Penn won five straight Ivy titles, and has won 17 total in the 35 years since—including both of Priore’s first two seasons as head coach. Last year, Priore asked his seniors to come up with five different attributes that define a Penn football player. One of the five was a “Philly mentality.” That phrase, with its definition—toughness, confidence, always have your teammates’ back—is printed at the top of a panel in the home locker room at Franklin Field. This season, though, it applies in a different way. Penn already had three Ivy losses heading into the Princeton game, and two of those losses came on the very last play of the game, presenting a very different challenge for a team accustomed to winning.

“Guess what?” Priore tells his players. “I am more proud of this team than any football team in my 33 years, and you know why? You are built on that foundation of that toughness, of that grit, of that grime, of that resilience. That’s who you guys are. When we go out there tomorrow, we’re not going to stop. We are not going to stop for four quarters. You know why? You can, and you will, and you will get it done tomorrow. Are there any questions?”


Saturday, 9:30 a.m.
Hunting Park, North Philadelphia

Star Wright, who may still be bleeding internally from a collision on the football field earlier this year, arrives for practice.

It’s the offseason for the Philadelphia Phantomz, the women’s tackle football team she started two years ago. At a park in the neighborhood where she grew up, about 25 of the team’s players and coaches gather for a morning workout. Their neon green shirts flash against the fall foliage as Wright leads the group through footwork drills and a route-running circuit.

“I’m ready!” Wright declares. “I’m just trying to get my team to be as ready as I am.”

Perhaps for the benefit of her doctors, she makes sure to clarify that this is just working out. No contact until she is fully cleared. But she knows what you’re wondering: Why keep playing?

Wright, 34, is the owner, head coach and star linebacker for the Phantomz, one of about 65 teams across the country that compete in the Women’s Football Alliance. She was a three-sport letterwinner just a few blocks from Hunting Park at Simon Gratz High, where the Phantomz play their home games. Wright started playing football in 2010, for a different women’s team in Philly and also as part of the Lingerie Football League, before founding the Phantomz in 2015. Both her 13-year-old son, Kion, and her 11-year-old daughter, Kyla, play football, too.

Star Wright, founder of the Philadelphia Phantomz, leads her team through workouts.

The collision happened in May, during a home game against the New England Nightmare. Wright also played tight end last season, and she was in the process of scoring a touchdown on a red-zone play designed specially for her, when she took a helmet from an opposing player squarely to her abdomen. She felt pain immediately, but figured she fractured her ribs. “No big deal,” she thought. But during a halftime ceremony to honor a teammate who was retiring from the sport at age 52, Wright suddenly couldn’t speak or stand.

Wright was rushed to a nearby hospital, where the X-Rays came back normal. A CAT scan uncovered the real issue: She had a lacerated liver and spleen and was bleeding internally. She needed immediate surgery. As her clothes were cut off, she asked the doctors, Am I going to die? “They didn’t answer,” she recalls.

The surgeon worked quickly to place a coil around the main artery in her liver to slow the bleeding. Another 20 minutes, she was told, and she may not have made it. But Wright refused to accept that she would no longer be able to play football. She’d been given that sentence once before, after a car accident in 2015, in which she fractured her skull and required reconstructive surgery on her foot. That was actually the reason she started the Phantomz, because she figured if she couldn’t play, she could still give other women the chance to do so.

She did return to the field for the Phantomz’s inaugural season, a torn MCL be damned. The team made as far as the conference championship game. In their second season, the freak collision happened. A few days ago Wright had a scare when she sneezed hard and blood squirted out of her nose, and she felt pain in the same place in her abdomen. She’ll get it checked out this week. Regardless, she was leading practice on Saturday, an unapologetic taskmaster.

Quick feet, quick feet, quick feet!

If the ball touches your hands and you drop it, you are doing push-ups!

Pay attention to the route!

Her roster has about 40 women, of all backgrounds, ages 16 to 50, who try out for the team and pay yearly dues. Sheree LaPointe, a tight end and defensive end, is an Army staff sergeant who has served a tour of duty in Afghanistan. Defensive tackle Ondrea Hunt is a high school senior at Penn Charter (Matt Ryan’s alma mater), where she became the first female student to join the football team, after proving to school administrators there was no rule preventing her from doing so. Nausicaa Dell’Orto, a tight end and linebacker, is an NFL Films intern who started a tackle football league seven years ago in her native Milan, Italy. They share a goal of growing the sport among women, and in this sports-crazed city they get impressive support—they’ll draw as many as 800 fans at their games, and even tailgates.

Two months after the collision, Wright was supposed to compete for Team USA in the Women’s World Championship. She made the trip to Canada and was named a team captain but had to watch from the sideline because a scan showed she still had some internal bleeding. The 2018 Phantomz season begins in April, and padded practices start in January, but Wright expects to be cleared by then. In fact, she’s certain of it. Just like the NFL team in town, she’s chasing a championship, and she doesn’t plan to stop until she gets it.

“I have people saying, you are crazy for continuing to play football,” Wright says. “But I tell them, football is my happy place. Why would you take away someone's happy place?”


Saturday, 1 p.m.
Franklin Field, Penn

It’s five minutes until kickoff, and the home locker room at Franklin Field has morphed into a mosh pit. The unedited version of “Lil’ Jon’s Throw It Up” is thumping out of speakers mounted on the wall, providing the beat for a bobbing, bouncing, chanting mob of padded and helmeted Red and Blue football players.

“I feel it right now,” Priore bellows. Or at least that’s what it sounds like he says. It’s hard to hear much of anything over the music. When the beats begin to fade, the team captains lead the way out of the doorway under a sign that reads PLAY LIKE A CHAMPION, down the tunnel, and onto the turf of Franklin Field.

The stadium is far from full, but that’s not unexpected. Franklin Field currently seats a little more than 50,000, and once could hold nearly 80,000 fans, a relic of a bygone era when Penn was a top-10 college football program and led the nation in attendance. The Army-Navy game was played here; and the NFL’s Eagles won their last championship here, in 1960 against Lombardi’s Packers. It was also here that Bert Bell, Penn alum and the second commissioner of the NFL, collapsed of a heart attack during the final minutes of an Eagles-Steelers game. In the early morning before each home game, Priore has a tradition of dropping his bag in the locker room and then walking through the quiet stadium on the way to his office. “You can almost hear the ghosts of football,” he says.

The venue is oversized for a present-day FCS program, but the history is the tradeoff. There may be plenty of empty seats, but the homecoming crowd of 9,073 is spirited and prideful. One sign: PRINCETON WAS OUR SAFETY SCHOOL. Another, held up by a young fan: PRINCETON SUCKS. BOO! BOO! BOO!

 

The best player on Penn’s roster is No. 5, senior receiver Justin Watson, a finance major in the Wharton business school. Watson has the talent to play at a FBS school, but he was a late bloomer at South Fayette High near Pittsburgh and honored his early commitment to Penn. In the previous week’s win at Brown he set new school records for career receiving yards and touchdowns, no small feat at a program that’s been around for 140 years. Watson had no idea until Penn sports information director Chas Dorman handed him a football after the game. “What’s this for?” he asked. At least 24 NFL teams have come to Penn to scout Watson this fall, some returning more than once.

Early in the second half, Watson catches a 36-yard touchdown on a go route up the sideline to give Penn a 24-7 lead. Vura, the ’82 quarterback who is watching from the sideline, pumps his fist. But the tide quickly changes when Princeton scores two touchdowns in a span of 1:15, the first after a shanked punt and the second off a Penn fumble deep in Tigers territory. By the end of the third quarter, Penn’s lead has been cut to just three points.

Justin Watson, the most productive receiver in Penn’s 140 years of football. He’s being scouting by NFL teams.

Regardless of the score, that point in the game means it’s time to throw toast. This is a Penn tradition. The school song, “Drink a Highball,” includes the line, “Here’s a toast to dear old Penn!” As legend has it, students used to toast with an adult beverage when the band played the song, until alcohol was banned at Franklin Field in the 1970s. Now, instead, fans toast their school by throwing actual toast. “Sometimes,” junior linebacker Pat McInerney says, “you get hit in the back of the head.” By the time a tense fourth quarter begins, a toast clean-up crew, toting rakes and shovels, has mobilized.

Another Penn fumble at midfield gives Princeton its first lead since the opening drive of the game, 35-31, with just 4:26 to play. As the Penn offense takes the field, the stadium announcer lets the crowd know that Watson has earned another school record in this game, this one for career receptions. What Watson does moments later elicits even greater cheers: A 26-yard catch up and over the defender to advance the Quakers into the red zone. Two plays later he adjusts a fade route to come inside instead, making a 15-yard TD catch that puts Penn back on top, 38-35. Watson comes sprinting off the field, and makes a beeline for the defense. There’s still 1:12 to play. Penn needs one more stop.

The final drive includes a Penn interception called off by a penalty, a Princeton touchdown that’s signaled and then waved off, and a 31-yard field goal attempt by Princeton to send the game to overtime. Earlier this season, in a loss at Dartmouth, Priore had used all three timeouts in an attempt to triple-ice the kicker. It didn’t work. So today he ices the Princeton kicker only twice. The kick is up, and … it’s wide right. Watson jumps on the back of his quarterback. Priore rips the visor off his head and rubs his hair in relief.

A crew cleans up after the traditional “toast” between the third and fourth quarter.
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“This is what we talked about last night,” he says. “Grit, play down to the wire, you never know what’s going to happen. This is in their DNA.”


Saturday, 6 p.m.
South Philadelphia Super Site

The sun begins to set, and it finally feels like football weather in Philadelphia. On a city-owned field adjacent to I-76, the Schuykill Expressway, Neumann-Goretti huddles up before its first district playoff game vs. Strawberry Mansion.

“What I want you to do is think about all we’ve been through,” a coach booms, “and think about where we are trying to go.”

Today Neumann-Goretti is the top dog. The high school at 10th and Moore in South Philadelphia is undefeated this football season, won its division in the city’s uber-competitive Catholic League and is beginning what it hopes is a long postseason run. Just a year ago, though, the school was winless and had to cancel its final two games because it didn’t have enough players. And just three years ago, the neighborhood institution was on the verge of closing because of declining enrollment.

Philadelphia is a city of neighborhoods, and Neumann-Goretti is South Philly. The co-ed Catholic school is nestled between blocks of row homes, and if you want a recommendation for the best hoagie in the area, all you have to do is ask. Many students walk to school, and it’s easy to find kids with a mom who went to all-girls Goretti and a dad who went to all-boys Neumann before the schools merged 13 years ago.

First-year Neumann-Goretti coach Albie Crosby.
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Jen Cooper, an assistant principal, also likes to think the school represents the scrappiness of its surrounding neighborhood. So when the doors threatened to close, a few things happened. Alumni got involved with donations, helping to fund building upgrades and scholarships (tuition is $9,000/year, and 70 percent of students qualify for some financial aid). The school hired new administrators and faculty. And, as is the case for many private schools in Philadelphia, a strong sports program is critical to a school’s survival. Put simply, if they didn’t have a football team, they’d be losing kids to other schools.

The new head football coach hired last spring, Albie Crosby, embraced the turnaround for both the football team and the high school. On this Saturday night he’s wearing a shirt with the team’s motto printed on the shoulder: WE JUST DIFFERENT. “It’s not the same Neumann-Goretti you are used to,” he says. At the school, Cooper spearheaded the first-ever Homecoming and re-did the 1950s library into a tech-forward “knowledge lab.” Her next project is turning the auditorium into a community theater space. Meanwhile, Crosby took some of his top players to visit colleges this summer and redid the team’s uniforms, changing the helmets from black to gold. If you’re wondering if it’s symbolic of a team that wants to win, you’d be correct.

It’s obvious on Saturday night as soon as both teams get off the bus that Neumann-Goretti will win. Strawberry Mansion has just 17 players; when one gets hurt in the first half, they are down to 16. They are in the position that Neumann-Goretti was in a year ago, when their opening day roster of 27 players dwindled to 19 because of injuries. Eight of those remaining players were freshmen who were not ready to play varsity games, so they made the decision to cancel the rest of the games.

Justin Johnson (in boot), who’s committed to Oregon, gives pointers on the sideline to a teammate.
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Last Christmas Eve, Lincoln Townsend Jr., the dean of students at Neumann-Goretti and the head coach last year, bumped into Crosby. Crosby won a state title at Imhotep Charter just two years ago, and Townsend had previously coached with him at West Catholic. He implored him to come to Neumann-Goretti. Crosby is a proven winner, had a reputation for helping players get to Division I colleges, and, Townsend says, “he’s the pied piper of football players.”

This year Neumann-Goretti has about 45 players who dress for games. Several transfers came from a local charter school that closed over the summer, including 6’6” defensive lineman Chris Barmore. Offensive lineman Justin Johnson, a 6’7” Oregon commit who lives in South Philly, transferred from Imhotep Charter for his senior year. Freshman enrollment at Neumann-Goretti is up 20 percent over last year and 50 percent over two years. During Friday practice the day before the game, when Crosby tells his players the list of who will dress versus Strawberry Mansion, he recites every name and number off the top of his head. “People don’t understand how he makes something out of nothing,” Johnson says. “It’s because he gets to learn and know his players.”

In a rivalrous Philly high school sports scene, not everyone is happy about Neumann-Goretti’s turnaround. Germantown Academy canceled its game against Neumann-Goretti this season, saying their programs were going in “different directions,” according to Crosby. But in a city with a struggling public school system, many kids choose private schools, and Crosby points to athletics programs as a “carrot” that can direct kids toward better opportunities and continuing their education. The graduation rate at Neumann-Goretti is nearly 100 percent, and about 90 percent of the students go to college.

In the first half, Strawberry Mansion is not able to stop Neumann-Goretti’s offense once, nor advance past midfield. Barmore, who has more than a dozen Division I scholarship offers since coming to Neumann-Goretti, tears past Strawberry Mansion’s linemen like he’s going through a subway turnstile. Freshman defensive back Tysheem Johnson has four interceptions. By halftime Neumann-Goretti is leading 46-0. The starters are done for the night.

Neumann-Goretti players raise the Catholic League plaque.
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Johnson is sitting out this game with a broken bone in his foot, but he spends the entire game on the sideline, without crutches, coaching the younger players. He appears to break up one spat between teammates; later he bends over to encourage a running back half his size that his time is coming. Do you want to practice taking a handoff, he gently asks? If Neumann-Goretti goes all the way to the state championship, their season would last five more games, and Johnson may be able to return to his spot at left guard.

That would be a remarkable run for a team that didn’t play past Halloween last year. When Crosby gathers his team after the 54-6 win, it’s clear there’s more work to be done. He thought the team was too lackadaisical in the first half. He urges the players to be on time for class and to keep up with their classwork, because otherwise they won’t be able to be a part of this run. He reminds them to not let the success so far go to their head.

“We ain’t achieved nothing yet, honestly,” Crosby says. “And we are still not a good football team right now. But I will say this: I’m very proud of every single young man here.”

“We talked about this day,” he continues. “We talked winning the Catholic League title. We talked about winning the first district game. We talked about winning the state title. Come on y’all. Gotta keep the plan going. Keep the plan going. A lot of hate going on for us, but we gotta keep going.”


Sunday, 1 p.m.
Lincoln Financial Field

Ed Callahan has had Eagles season tickets for 22 years. He’s been tailgating out of an RV across from the Linc for 12 of those years. And for the past two he’s been hosting special guests from the state of North Dakota.

Callahan’s RV, The Eagle Mobile, has become the unofficial gathering place for North Dakotans since Carson Wentz, the pride of Bismarck, was drafted by Philadelphia in 2016 and named the team’s Week 1 starter as a rookie. Callahan’s parking spot is in the Wells Fargo Center lot across from Lincoln Financial Field.  Last season the Wentz family and the mayor of Bismarck, Mike Seminary, were tailgating one lot over and stopped by on their way into the stadium.

Callahan, a retired Navy Lieutenant Commander, hit it off with Seminary, and the two have kept in touch. Seminary called this offseason, asking when the schedule release was happening so that he could plan his visit. He and his wife, Deb, traveled to Philadelphia for the 49ers game last month, which coincided with Deb’s birthday. Callahan and his tailgate crew had an Eagles-themed birthday cake waiting for her. A few days later a handwritten thank-you note arrived from North Dakota.

Wentzmania reaches from North Dakota to Southeastern PA.
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Folks, our family is profoundly humbled by your hospitality, generosity and friendship. You’re like family! We are anxious to see you again. Go Carson! Go Eagles! Blessings to you. From: The Seminary Family

“He’s made everyone excited, that’s for sure,” Callahan says of Wentz. “It brings in a lot of great out-of-town friends. Half the North Dakota State people are probably Vikings fans or Packers fans who are Carson Wentz fans, and that’s why they are here. So that’s great. What a great thing he’s done for the team and the city.”

Indeed, before the Week 9 Broncos game there’s a gaggle of fans wearing yellow and green North Dakota state apparel at Callahan’s RV, eating Irish-American Philly omelets and scrapple for breakfast, and Italian sausage and peppers for lunch. Seminary sent many of the out-of-towners to The Eagle Mobile. Others were spotted by Callahan and his crew and invited over. That’s how Chris Laite, a state trooper from Devils Lake, N.D., and Tanner and Jodie Berg, North Dakota state alums, found their way here. They traveled to their first Eagles game last year, and the Saturday before went to a bar near the stadium to watch the Bisons game. They ran into one of Callahan’s tailgating buddies, who invited them. This is their second game back.

Wentz has turned Philly into a city of believers.
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Last season, the group attended the Week 7 game against Minnesota. Laite has been a lifelong Vikings fan, so he switched between a Wentz North Dakota State jersey and a Vikings shirt, depending on which team was on offense. “We got booed, and then when we put the jersey back on, we got cheered every time,” he says. This year, though, he’s fully exchanged his Vikings fandom for the Eagles. He feels no guilt, after 39 years. “We’ve got hope now,” he adds.

The Eagles’ 8-1 start to the season has emboldened the city of Philadelphia to think about its first NFL championship since 1960. The early 2000s run of three straight conference championship losses, followed by the Super Bowl loss, instilled a sense among some fans of always waiting for the other shoe to drop. But the Eagles haven’t lost since Sept. 17, and the city seems to be buying in. And as teammate Zach Ertz put it, “[Wentz] is the face of the franchise; he’s the face of the city right now.” Look no further than the Wentz Wagon displayed outside one tailgate, with Pope Francis and Rocky as Wentz’s fellow passengers.

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The Eagles’ victory over the Broncos, in which Wentz hangs four passing touchdowns on the previously top-ranked Denver defense, is just another page in an MVP-caliber season. Eagles fans, and their new brethren from North Dakota, are flying high. Says season-ticket holder Darren Clegg, a member of The Eagle Mobile crew: “I think Carson Wentz is the greatest thing to ever happen.”

FOOTBALL IN AMERICA: Read the entire series.

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