For any high school football team, it takes a while to build chemistry. So it’s a wonder Martin Luther King’s squad didn’t combust after the players had to welcome their rivals to the roster.
Budget cuts last year forced the closing of Philadelphia’s Germantown High School, merging their students with those from MLK, which was coming off a one-win season — and the win was by forfeit. When football practice began, many of the players didn’t want to be at King, much less think they could be kings of the city’s Public League.
Director Judd Ehrlich and his crew filmed a compelling documentary, “We Could Be King,” which tells the story of the 2013 MLK Cougars, who showed what a little togetherness and a few heroes can do. Coach Ed Dunn, a 27-year-old volunteer, poured his heart into the team, and the teenagers responded in often inspirational ways.
The documentary focuses heavily on two players, dominant but sometimes unmotivated lineman Dontae Angus and shutdown safety Sal Henderson, who learns just how important football is to him when it is taken away.
Win or lose, Dunn preaches humility, sacrifice and brotherhood, often using refrains such as “Let ’em know if they don’t already know. Who is King?” Pushups are done while spelling out the letters in “humble and hungry,” and he says anyone who has trouble spelling can feel free to grunt with each return to the ground.
To Dunn, the Cougars have an advantage because of all they have overcome. According to the filmmakers, $3.5 billion were cut from U.S. public high school sports budgets in a four-year period, much of it from low-income neighborhoods.
In MLK’s story, the head coach isn’t the only positive influence to emerge. Families, Principal William Wade, assistant coach Michelle Grace and Minnesota Vikings defensive tackle Sharrif Floyd all show what can happen when young people have dependable role models.
Grace played football at Germantown, where she was a place kicker and reportedly the first girl to carry the ball in a Philadelphia high school game. Floyd starred at the city’s George Washington High School on his way to Florida and the NFL, creating a path the Cougars’ Angus dreamed of following.
Regarding his high school days and the effort it took to complete schoolwork and improve as a football player, Floyd said in the documentary, “Stress, I blocked that out. I ain’t got no time for that.”
That’s easier said than done for MLK, which has more than one “Friday Night Lights”-like finish during its 2013 season. By the end of the film, though, the sights and sounds of the late autumn high school football season shine through. Some of the former Germantown players still have family members who refuse to wear the MLK colors, but there’s no doubt that the players have learned what can happen when they all pull together.
‘We Could Be King’ premiered at Tribeca Film Festival in April and had an exclusive, one-time airing on ESPN. It is being released to video on demand Tuesday but is not in theaters.