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