Grudge match

— The George Wash­ing­ton Eagles vs. the Frank­ford Pi­on­eers: A grid­iron con­test that with­stands the test of time.

Frank­ford plays a home game with Wash­ing­ton, in the biggest game of the sea­son on Fri­day, Oc­to­ber 5, 2012. Phil­adelphia, Pa. (Maria Pouch­nikova)


In the mo­ments after the 25-14 win over George Wash­ing­ton, Frank­ford de­fens­ive co­ordin­at­or Juan Namnun wanted to make something clear, so he said it twice.

“This is without a doubt as big of a rivalry as you’ll get in any sport,” the as­sist­ant foot­ball coach said. “I’ll be per­fectly hon­est with you: the day the sched­ule comes out, we know what day we’re play­ing Wash­ing­ton. And be­lieve me, they do, too.”

Namnun played base­ball at Frank­ford in the 1990s and is now the head coach of its base­ball pro­gram, one that has won three Pub­lic League cham­pi­on­ships in the last five years. He’s been firmly en­trenched in this rivalry, and ad­mits there’s just something spe­cial when these two schools get to­geth­er for a foot­ball game.

“Be­fore I got to Frank­ford, I came to a foot­ball game here (at Frank­ford Sta­di­um) and it happened to be the Frank­ford- Wash­ing­ton game,” he said. “There was a great crowd just like today, and I looked around and said, ‘Man, is it like this for every game?’ And my sis­ter told me that no, we just don’t like Wash­ing­ton. And this is in 1990; even then, we knew this was our rival … our nemes­is.”

With roughly half the foot­ball sea­son un­der­way, each team came in­to the Fri­day af­ter­noon game un­defeated in the Pub­lic League’s AAAA Gold Di­vi­sion.

A 3 p.m. kick­off and a mal­func­tion­ing score­board that kept fans guess­ing took some of the life out of the at­mo­sphere, yet the ten­sion in the stands and on the field was still palp­able.

Last fall, Frank­ford de­feated the Eagles in the reg­u­lar sea­son’s fi­nal game to earn the reg­u­lar sea­son cham­pi­on­ship. Then three weeks later, some costly late-game Frank­ford mis­cues led to a 20-13 Wash­ing­ton win in the league’s title game. It was a back­break­ing loss that ended Frank­ford’s ex­cel­lent sea­son, and a game that the Pi­on­eers had waited al­most a year to avenge.

“It was a heart­break­er,” said Frank­ford quar­ter­back Tim Di­Gior­gio, who played Fri­day des­pite a sore knee. “This game was something I’ve been wait­ing for. I wasn’t go­ing to miss it.”

Ad­ded Namnun: “That game last year had been burned in­to every­one’s minds. We’ve used it as our fuel, without a shad­ow of a doubt. Our motto has been ‘un­fin­ished busi­ness.’ When you’re play­ing for a cham­pi­on­ship and fall that short, it leaves the worst taste.”

The rivalry between the schools has al­ways ex­is­ted, but it reached a cres­cendo last year with the emer­gence of touch­down throw­ing ma­chine Di­Gior­gio, who fit new head coach Will Dog­gett’s spread of­fense like a glove.

Le­gendary Wash­ing­ton head coach Ron Co­hen has won 12 Pub­lic League cham­pi­on­ships in his 28 sea­sons, set­ting the bar for ex­cel­lence and con­sist­ency; now, Frank­ford is out to prove there’s an­oth­er horse in the race for league su­prem­acy.

“Here’s how I look at it,” Dog­gett said. “Wash­ing­ton has built a pro­gram over the years where kids want to go play foot­ball there. To me, that’s what we’re try­ing to do here. Not only get them to play foot­ball, but give them an out­let to move for­ward in life. We want to build a pro­gram here. I’d love for one day to be men­tioned in the same breath as a guy like Ron Co­hen.”

“It’s two evenly matched pro­grams,” Co­hen said. “They’ve won some and we’ve won some. Both of­fer great tra­di­tion. I really re­spect them, and I’m sure they love to play Wash­ing­ton as much as we love to play them. I still have that flame burn­ing in my belly, and I think it burns a bit hot­ter for Frank­ford. There’s something spe­cial about these games.”

What seems to set apart the rivalry between these two schools is that open re­spect for each oth­er. On the field, they are ad­versar­ies, but they leave it all out there once the game is over. Many of the play­ers grew up to­geth­er and re­main close friends, and there is a mu­tu­al ap­pre­ci­ation between the two coach­ing staffs.

Mostly, both sides un­der­stand the re­newed life in­jec­ted back in­to this show­down is good for the Pub­lic League, one of­ten looked down upon next to the more flashy and deep-pock­eted Cath­ol­ic and Inter-Ac League schools.

“It’s good for the city that they know they can look for­ward to a Pub­lic League game that’s go­ing to be through the roof,” said Frank­ford as­sist­ant coach Rasheed Muhammad, who played for the Pi­on­eers and now coaches his son, a Frank­ford ju­ni­or. “I played in it. It’s spe­cial.”

This con­test wasn’t quite as dra­mat­ic as the pair at the end of last sea­son, partly be­cause Frank­ford jumped to an early 13-0 lead and nev­er trailed. Namnun’s de­fense forced four turnovers and ju­ni­or Dami­on Samuels rushed for 76 yards and two touch­downs, as well as a 94-yard kick­off re­turn for a score.

Still though, fans, play­ers and coaches brought the ex­cite­ment to the sta­di­um, and an in­creased print and tele­vi­sion me­dia pres­ence gave the con­test a play­off feel. And al­though the Pi­on­eers walked off the field with a win, the in­ev­it­ab­il­ity of these teams meet­ing again down the line in the play­offs kept Frank­ford from get­ting too ex­cited about an early Oc­to­ber tri­umph.

“Short memory,” Namnun said. “Win a game like this and you’re wel­come to be ex­cited on Sat­urday and Sunday. But come Monday and Tues­day you have to for­get all the good things you did and pre­pare for the next one.”

“Throw it out the win­dow,” Muhammad ad­ded. “We’ll take it and en­joy it for the mo­ment, but we have to let it go. We know we’ll see them again, and this was just one game, forty-eight minutes of foot­ball … it’s over.”

For Frank­ford, play­ing down the win makes sense. After all, they de­feated the Eagles in the reg­u­lar sea­son last year, only to watch their rival cel­eb­rate a cham­pi­on­ship they be­lieved was theirs. With a group of battle-tested play­ers and coaches who want to avoid the bit­ter taste of d&ea­cute;jà vu, the Pi­on­eers will pro­ceed with cau­tion. Sure, they got a vic­tory they des­per­ately wanted to put them atop the di­vi­sion stand­ings at 3-0, but there’s still busi­ness to take care of.

“Listen, this is big after the way last year ended, be­cause these guys had a be­lief they could beat this team,” Dog­gett said. “But that’s it. Right now, we’re fo­cus­ing on Cent­ral. It’s not Fels, or North­east, or Wash­ing­ton in the play­offs … it’s Cent­ral, and that’s where our heads will be. Every week presents a new chal­lenge.”

Namnun, a vet­er­an of this sac­red rivalry for more than 20 years, con­curred.

“Whenev­er you go up against your ab­so­lute biggest rival and come out on top, there’s a huge amount of ex­hil­ar­a­tion,” he said. “In this rivalry, we have to main­tain a busi­ness-like ap­proach. It’s a great win, but it’s a reg­u­lar sea­son win. If we see them again, it will be dif­fer­ent then than now. Their coaches will ad­just, and so will we.

“Against them you al­ways want to put your best foot for­ward,” he ad­ded, “and it’s a big meas­ur­ing stick for us in terms of see­ing how we stack up. It’s a game, in any sport, where you know they have a huge amount of tal­ent to draw from. They have thou­sands of gif­ted stu­dents, and so do we.” ••


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