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An Involuntary Union of Football Rivals for Philadelphia High Schools

“Who the King?”

“We the Kings!”

“Who the King?”

“We the Kings!”

“Who the King?”

“We the Kings!”

What was once unthinkable to many players had become intimate and binding. Most of King’s current roster played last season at archrival Germantown High School in northwest Philadelphia. Few could have imagined the schools merging, the teams playing as one.

When King last defeated Germantown in their annual Thanksgiving Day game, in 2010, the players brawled with fists and helmets. The police intervened.

But austerity has trumped rivalry. Facing a $304 million budget shortfall, the chronically troubled Philadelphia School District closed 23 schools in June. The closings included Germantown, one of the nation’s oldest high schools, which opened in 1914 and closed a year shy of its centennial. Most of its students would now attend King. The two schools were about a mile apart and shared a tense history.

Layoff notices were sent to more than 3,800 school district employees, 20 percent of the work force, including 676 teachers. Officials described what they called a “doomsday” possibility: classes opening Sept. 9 with no assistant principals, secretaries, new books, paper, librarians, art, music — or sports.

While much public attention was focused on how the cuts would affect the classroom, the fear of empty football fields and silent basketball gyms deepened the uncertainty, dislocation and chaos that accompanied this latest budget crisis in the nation’s fifth-largest city.

“Let’s face it, a large percentage of our students come to school because of sports, not so much to play the game but to be part of a surrogate family,” said Robert Coleman, the executive director of athletics for the Philadelphia School District. “We know the best place to be after school is the football field or the hardwood, certainly the safest.”

Into late July, King High and other city teams held voluntary football workouts on faith, not surety. Practice was due to begin Aug. 12, but the school district’s $7.4 million sports budget had not been allocated. There was no guarantee of a football season. King’s coach was a teacher who had been laid off. His status was undetermined.

School officials remained confident that money would be found for sports. It seemed politically untenable and a social abandonment to deny extracurricular activities for 10,000 inner-city students. So schools spent June and July preparing for fall sports mostly on the conviction that officials, coaches and athletes could not imagine life without them.

At King High, coaches spent their own money on gas and meals as the Cougars played seven-on-seven touch football exhibitions. Without late-afternoon access to the school building, players stored their helmets and shoulder pads in a shipping container. Everything about football remained at once exciting and unsettled.

Mike Hawkins, who had coached various sports at Germantown High since 1976, and had won more football games than any coach there, retired when the school closed. One of his former assistants, Edward Dunn, was named the coach at King High in April. But Dunn, a 27-year-old math teacher, had only three and a half years of experience in a seniority-based school district; he was laid off in June along with hundreds of other teachers.

The situation remained complicated. Dunn must be rehired as a teacher in the district, or hired in some other capacity at King, to proceed as the coach, the school’s principal said. Otherwise, he would have to be a volunteer assistant.

No one knew when this would be resolved. Dunn continued to run the team. But Mike Barbarito, a science teacher who coached the offensive line and did not receive a pink slip, was the interim coach.

Dunn had a wife and a young son to care for. He had received his final check for his prorated salary and accumulated sick days. Despite the ambiguity of his job, he said he would coach at King this season, even without pay.

This was his first chance to be a head coach. The principal stood solidly behind him. He was the one most responsible for coalescing wary rivals into a team.

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