— With head coach Will Doggett away tending to his gravely ill mother, his Frankford team won a title for them both.
In the moments before Saturday night’s championship Public League football game between Frankford and George Washington, one thing was clear — somebody was missing.
And not just anybody; no, it was arguably the most important member of the Frankford football family, the architect, who, in just his second year at the program’s helm, had brought championship-caliber play back to a high school that so desperately longed for it.
Head coach Will Doggett and his familiar khaki shorts, black work boots and white goatee were nowhere to be found, and the show had to go on. The former Frankford assistant who had wanted so badly to be part of this moment had rushed home to his native Louisiana to be with his gravely ill mother, Polly, in her final moments. She died that same day.
Doggett’s absence was a gut-punch to a team that had so heavily relied on his calming presence on the sideline. And that made the moments following Frankford’s 30-16 championship victory that much more uplifting.
When it was over, defensive coordinator and acting head coach Juan Namnun marched his team toward the west end zone at Northeast’s Charles Martin Stadium, pulled out his cell phone, tapped a few buttons and told everyone to hush.
After a brief pause, a voice picked up on the other end of the line. It was Doggett.
“Hey, Doggett, we’ve got something to tell you … ‘You’re a champion!’” Namnun shouted as the team erupted into cheers.
Doggett’s reaction couldn’t be seen, but odds are the usually poker-faced coach allowed himself a well-deserved smile.
Namnum, a Frankford alum who has won three league titles in five years as the school’s baseball coach, was prepared, as were fellow assistants/Pioneer alumni Rasheed Muhammad, Dominic Doyle and Dave Cebular. Namnun had found out about Doggett’s impending absence on Thursday, and the head coach broke the news of his mother’s failing health to his team at Friday’s practice before shuttling off to Louisiana.
From there, all that was left to do was play football, something Frankford was ready to do. In Doggett’s absence, the normally offensive-minded Pioneers used a swarming Namnun defense (five turnovers, one safety) to jump out to a 23-0 lead. When Washington closed the gap to 23-16 early in the fourth quarter, Frankford responded with a clutch special teams play and a controversial defensive stand to close out their rivals, who had beaten the Pioneers on this very field one year ago for the Public League crown.
“Regardless of our success in baseball, Frankford is a football high school, and I’m very proud to be a part of that,” Namnun said. “These kids worked so hard all year to be here today. We wanted to change history from last year. This one is for Polly, for Coach Doggett and for everyone back at the school and in the neighborhood. It was more than just eleven of us on the field tonight.”
From the get go, there was no doubt the Pioneers seemed to have some extra pep in their step on this night.
First, it was a perfect 32-yard pass from quarterback Tim DiGiorgio to Brandon Jack less than four minutes in to stake Frankford to an 8-0 lead. A snap over Washington punter Jake Wright’s head through the back of the end zone made it 10-0 early in the second, then junior running back Damion Samuels’ 64-yard touchdown scamper three minutes later increased the lead to 17-0.
Junior Marquis Poston’s 12-yard fumble return (off a Kadar Jones strip at the Washington line of scrimmage) just six seconds later to make it 23-0 made it seem like the rout was on. But two touchdown passes from Washington’s Dave Gavrilov to Shaquon Allen cut the deficit to 23-16 early in the fourth.
After the speedy Poston downed a Prince Cooper punt at the Washington 1, the stingy Pioneers defense wreaked havoc on the opposing offense as it had done all night. After two short runs got the Eagles to the 4, Gavrilov dropped back and found senior Rene Villafane, but Poston jumped the route and snagged the ball near the 10. A collision with Villafane dislodged the ball as Poston hit the turf, causing mass confusion on both sides. Was it an incompletion? A fumble? Players on both sides stood around staring at the ball, and with no whistle blown, Frankford’s Anthony Wright-Downing scooped up the loose ball and trotted six yards into the end zone for a touchdown. The officials conferred, and much to an apoplectic Villafane and Washington’s chagrin, the call was upheld.
Touchdown Frankford. Game over.
For the first time in six years, the Pioneers were back atop the Public League football world.
“When Will told the team, the emotion on their face said, ‘We can’t have him come back and not give the trophy to him,’” Muhammad said. “Every play, every second of that game we had him on our minds. We’re a family. He gave me a shot, and I love him like a father.”
The two players involved in Frankford’s final touchdown concurred.
“We wanted to be there for him during this difficult time,” Wright-Downing said.
“When we were able to shout and celebrate on the field when he was on the phone, it felt great,” Poston added. “That was the kind of phone call he needed to hear, and I am so happy we were able to make it happen for him.”
By virtue of the championship win, Frankford is allowed at least two more games, meaning Doggett still has some time left with this bunch. First up will be this weekend’s District 12 city title game against heavily favored La Salle before closing it out with a Thanksgiving Day morning contest with Samuel Fels.
A hoarse Namnun (“I sound like this because I was down here instead of up there,” he said, indicating his usual perch high up in the press box) said Doggett was anticipating being back on the sideline for the La Salle game after he was finished tending to his family affairs back home.
“It will be comforting to have him back,” said Namnun, who, along with Muhammad, received a celebratory Gatorade bath in Doggett’s stead. “You only have one mom. He made his decision, and we’re proud of him. We did this tonight for him, and for Polly.”
“For him to believe in us the way he did …” Muhammad said. “Everything we do is for him.”
Doggett and his vaunted spread attack took over for longtime coach Mike Capriotti and his ‘Wing-T’ offense, which had been used at Frankford since 1965, before last season. The results were immediately felt, as DiGiorgio threw for 2,357 yards and 30 touchdowns; however, Washington had the last laugh, winning a championship thriller littered with crucial Pioneer mistakes.
Not this time.
Though a banged-up DiGiorgio’s numbers were far more pedestrian in 2012 (1,187 yards, nine TDs), he made enough big plays to offet his three interceptions and deny Ron Cohen his 13th championship in 28 years as Washington’s coach. On the way, DiGiorgio had plenty of help from Samuels and Quinton Ellis in the backfield, as well as a stout offensive line and Denzel Turbeville, Renz Compton and Wydell Compton’s steady hands as wideouts.
And of course there was Namnun’s defense, which played so well in 2012 despite never getting the credit it deserved. In this game, defense really did win a championship.
“We wanted to show more aggression, we wanted to swarm them,” Namnun said.
On this night — and this entire season — Frankford was the better team. Including the postseason, the Pioneers won all seven of their league games, including two over the reigning champs.
“We just got it done, and we got it done together,” Namnun said.
Before he raced to catch Frankford’s jubilant bus back home, it was Muhammad who had the night’s last word.
“We were missing a piece, but we still had to get it done,” said Muhammad, who became the final assistant on the Pioneer coaching staff to win a championship as both a player and coach at the school.
“It’s special, man … it’s a beautiful thing. Family is what we’ve preached all year to these kids. One heartbeat, one team … that’s our motto.” ••
Sports editor Ed Morrone can be reached at 215-354-3035 or firstname.lastname@example.org