In the original Rocky film, the titular hero fights as a beloved underdog, heading into a heavyweight bout with the much more powerful Apollo Creed that nobody gives Rocky Balboa much of a chance to win.
In the end, Rocky indeed does lose his fight to Creed, a simple fact that many viewers often forget. Why? Well, considering Rocky fought so valiantly and pushed his top-line opponent to the brink of a stunning defeat, it’s only natural to assume the challenger won, even if the scorecard said otherwise.
On Saturday night at Northeast High School, Frankford played the role of Rocky, while mighty St. Joseph’s Prep wore its Creed trunks in the PIAA District 12 city title football game. Much like the film, most outsiders snickered at the thought of the Pioneers keeping things competitive, let alone being in a position to steal a win. But alas, that’s how things unfolded, as Frankford went the full 12 rounds with the Prep, having a chance to win on a pair of drives late in the fourth quarter.
Records will indicate the Prep just barely held on in a titanic defensive battle, 10-7, giving the Catholic League another win in a game it normally dominates; however, despite the final score, the Pioneers earned something in this game that the Public League desperately needed: respect.
“We didn’t get lucky; we were in it the whole game and we should have won it in the fourth quarter,” head coach Will Doggett said. “We just came up a bit short. We had a couple of opportunities we could have capitalized on, and we had a few miscues. Other than that, I was happy with how the game went. Most people didn’t think we had a shot against these guys.”
He’s not kidding. The discrepancies between Public and Catholic League football programs are no secret, and usually when the champs of each league meet in this contest, it’s not close. Last year’s Catholic League champion, La Salle, thrashed Frankford 37-20.
But Frankford always thought it had a shot in this one, partly because of Prep starting QB Chris Martin being lost to a knee injury in the Catholic final, and partly because they matched up capably on the lines. If this war was going to be fought in the trenches, the Pioneers liked their chances of winning the battle.
“Everyone was predicting a blowout,” said senior RB/DB Damion Samuels. “I saw one score that said 46-14, or something crazy like that. We felt as if we were being really disrespected. We were going to get respect if we had to force and demand our way to it.”
The score read 10-0 Prep at the half, and there was not much in the way of offense. The Hawks’ only touchdown occurred after a short field-goal attempt at 4th-and-6 from the Frankford 11; after Frankford was whistled offsides, the Prep went for it (and converted) on 4th-and-1, and Hawks RB/LB and Rhawnhurst native Vince Moffett scored on a 2-yard run on the play after the conversion.
After Frankford’s drive to open the second half was halted at the Prep 35, the Pioneers quickly forced a punt and used a 10-play, 62-yard drive to cut it to 10-7 on a 6-yard TD run by senior QB Marquise Poston with 50 seconds left. (Poston had kept the drive going with completions of 16 and 21 yards, one of which came on a critical 3rd-and-12.) The Prep quickly raced down to Frankford’s 8 on the ensuing drive, but Samuels recovered QB Jack Clements’ fumble to set the stage for a wild fourth.
Twice more Frankford stopped the Hawks inside their 15-yard line, once on a missed field goal from the 12 and the other on a turnover on downs on the 5. Frankford’s first offensive effort with 3:02 left was squelched by a Poston INT; when he and his team got the ball on their own 6 with 1:17 to go, Poston completed three passes to the 50, but his final two efforts fell incomplete to end the game.
The Pioneers literally came that close to shocking the football world, in large part to a Herculean defensive effort in which many players (Poston, Samuels, Quinton Ellis, Kadar Jones, to name a few) played two-way football throughout.
“This is the best defense I’ve coached here, and I’m extremely proud of their effort,” Doggett said. “Things went well on that side. I just wish we could have given them some more points.”
The loss, because it was so close, has made it even harder to get over.
“Personally, it’s still in my head,” Samuels said by phone on Monday. “In my mind, I felt like we should have won. We hit guys and made them feel pain on every play. Each and every one of us gave it our all. There were a few mistakes and miscues (a gift-wrapped pick-six from Clements and an airborne snap over Poston’s head in the third, to name a few), but I’m so proud of the effort and character we showed.”
If the Pioneers were out for respect, they surely earned it. A member of the Prep coaching staff stopped by Doggett’s postgame huddle to congratulate the effort, while Moffett called Frankford “probably the toughest team we’ve played all year.” Public League chair Robert Coleman lauded Frankford for doing “one hell of a job,” and Doggett told his heartbroken team that he “couldn’t be prouder if you were my own kids.”
“We represented Frankford to the max,” Doggett said. “We made some mistakes and should have had the ‘W,’ but you live and you learn. There’s no reason for them to hang their heads. They left everything out on that field. They played like champs from the first whistle to the last one. We sent a message to the Catholic League that we’re no longer pushovers.”
Samuels, despite obvious lingering disappointment in his voice, backed up his head coach.
“In that situation, you think about the stories where you do something to make people remember you,” he said. “If we win that game, then we’re one of the best teams in Public League history. We knew in our minds how close this game would be, even if nobody else did.”
In the end, it was a commendable effort that came up just short. Maybe people will remember Frankford as Rocky, the challenger that gave the heavyweight opponent all it could handle; or maybe Samuels is right, that “nobody remembers the runner-up, just the winner.” Either way, it was a classic for the ages, and when this game comes around again in 2014, the Public League shouldn’t be considered an enormous underdog anymore “just because.”
“I felt we had to give that kind of effort against a team like that,” Doggett said. “No half-steps, no haphazard ways. Just Frankford football from start to finish. I’ll tell you one thing, this is one of my favorite teams of all time.” ••