The Lost Season

A wealthy coach used his money to build a powerhouse high school football program. But what’s the point of creating a great team if no one in your league will play you?

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Photos by Toni L. Sandys

The best high school football team in Maryland, and maybe the nation, plays its games in a public park in Baltimore. There is no Texas-size crowd under its Friday-night lights. There might be two dozen spectators — mostly parents — if the team is lucky. This year, the St. Frances Academy Panthers almost didn’t have a season. No one in their private-school league would play them. They are just that good.

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Abandoned by their league shortly before summer workouts began, they were forced to create an independent schedule at a time when many teams at their level were already booked. Which partly explains why, on Oct. 12, after a nine-hour drive from Ontario, a small but brave team from Canada Prep Academy spills out of a bus onto the gridiron at Patterson Park. From the sidelines, a few Panthers assistant coaches stare at their opponents in disbelief. There are barely enough players to field a team.

It’s the fifth game in a season that has been, thus far, rather anti-climactic. St. Frances’s opener had been against one of their few well-matched opponents: St. Joseph’s Prep, a storied Philadelphia football program. But with St. Frances up 13-7 in the third quarter, the game was called off because of lightning. Another game, in Florida, was never played because of weather; three others prior to the Canada Prep game — including yet another cut short by weather — had resulted in easy wins. The players spent most of August and September in scrimmages, including against each other in a mock game, which their coach tried to sell on Twitter as best he could: “the two best teams in the country!! … Our offense vs our defense!!!!” But the boys look back with less fondness (“It got boring,” says one), wishing for a real game.

Now, Panthers coach Biff Poggi stands before the team, gathered in a semicircle on the field. A legend in the Maryland Interscholastic Athletic Association, Poggi wears his silver hair buzzed close, military style, with a dusting of silver whiskers on his chin. At 58, he still has the height and giant build of the offensive lineman he once was. “We’re going to win a national championship,” he tells his kids. In high school, there is no game to determine a winner — only rankings from various entities to crown the final champion. At this point, the Panthers are the No. 7 high school team in the country and No. 1 in the state, according to MaxPreps and USA Today.

By early in the second quarter against Canada Prep, the score is 34-0, St. Frances. “This is bad,” says a Panthers cornerback on the sideline. “They have heart,” a wideout adds, “I’ll give them that.” During the halftime break, with the Panthers well on their way to a 55-0 victory, the team kneels. “This is a process we’re going through together, inflicted on us by our league,” Poggi says. The boys look up at him. “I am absolutely furious at what you have had to endure. Out of my mind.”

His anger isn’t aimed at Canada Prep. “It’s not about these kids,” he clarifies. “I respect the hell out of them.” Poggi’s ire is reserved for his MIAA colleagues with teams 20 minutes away that refuse to play St. Frances. “I want you, more than any team I’ve ever coached, to win a national championship,” he says. “First of all, because I love you. But also, I want you to shove it up the rest of those guys’ a—s!”

Only three years ago, the St. Frances Panthers were a laughingstock. They were from a tiny, under-resourced black Catholic high school in a bleak pocket of Baltimore. There was little money for coaches or uniforms or travel. Their MIAA rivals regularly beat them by double digits. In 2010, they lost every game. In 2015, they won only two.

That all changed with the arrival of Poggi, who had led the tony Gilman School — his alma mater and one of the MIAA’s richest schools — to 13 league championships in 19 years. In addition to being a successful coach, Poggi is a wealthy businessman, and when he came to St. Frances, he brought his money with him — so far pouring $2.5 million into the football team and the school. In just three years, he has helped build a juggernaut of a program, with players receiving football scholarship offers from the likes of Clemson, Alabama and Oklahoma.

Along the way, his methods have alienated the rest of the league, raising questions of fairness and safety. To Poggi and his supporters, he’s giving poor kids of color a chance at a good education and a college scholarship. To his critics, he’s cheating the system in an ego-driven obsession to win. “People unfortunately in Baltimore think that success is a zero-sum game,” Poggi told me. “And if you have it, they must not be getting it. You must be taking it from them. And that’s not what it is at all.”

St. Frances coach Biff Poggi talks with his players.

St. Frances Academy is the oldest continually operating predominantly black Catholic high school in the country. Founded in 1828, it’s almost a decade older than the nation’s first historically black college. Named for St. Frances of Rome, a 15th-century female mystic, it was established to teach children of color to read the Bible. Mother Mary Lange, the founder, was a Cuban-born nun who also helped start the Oblate Sisters of Providence, the first successful religious order for black women; it still owns and operates the coed institution of 180 students.

The small brick school is in the neglected East Baltimore neighborhood of Johnston Square, whose streets are lined with shuttered rowhouses and boarded-up buildings. The unemployment rate here is the third-worst in Baltimore, the homicide rate the city’s second highest.

“When you hear of a homicide in Baltimore, which is at least weekly, we start texting each other: ‘Does that touch our community somehow?’ ” says Deacon Curtis Turner, St. Frances’s principal, as he gives me a tour of the school’s simple white-walled chapel. Turner had just arrived in 2008 when he learned that there was a brand-new football program, thanks to a $60,000 donation from Poggi, then at Gilman but on the St. Frances board. “There was a lot of gang recruitment going on,” Turner says. Football was a way to keep boys busy after school in the fall.

As the fledgling team struggled, Messay Hailemariam, then the head coach, knew that the program needed funding he couldn’t provide to stay competitive. “I stepped aside for the benefit of the team,” he told me of the start of the Poggi era. (Hailemariam stayed on as an assistant coach.)

“What I said to my coaches when I came back from Michigan is, we’re going to level the playing field,” Poggi recalls. “We’re going to make it no different for a kid to go to St. Frances than we are for a kid to go to any great school.”

Poggi left Gilman after a falling-out with the administration. Part of the issue was that he wanted five football recruits each year, a promise the school wouldn’t make. At St. Frances, the coaches now have 12 to 15 football recruits per year. Poggi sent his staff to St. Frances, and one of his assistants, Henry Russell, became head coach. Poggi himself spent a year working under Jim Harbaugh at the University of Michigan before returning to Baltimore. “What I said to my coaches when I came back from Michigan is, we’re going to level the playing field,” he recalls. “We’re going to make it no different for a kid to go to St. Frances than we are for a kid to go to any great school.” Other prep schools had big endowments and rich alumni. St. Frances would have Poggi.

Beginning in 2016, the influx of Poggi’s coaches and money made a nearly miraculous difference. In just the first year, the staff took the team’s record to 10-2, and the Panthers won their first MIAA A Conference championship. Their roster swelled with Division I-caliber recruits, some from out of state. In 2017, with Poggi back to help lead the program, they went undefeated. The Panthers leveled all their opponents, outscoring them 534 to 61, and captured their second straight MIAA title.

The fallout started last May. Mount St. Joseph High School’s letter came first, just after Memorial Day. The school would no longer play St. Frances in football because, officials charged, the two institutions did not share the goal of “a safe and healthy competitive environment.” A day later, Calvert Hall followed suit, citing the “size and athletic disparity” between the teams. (Another school, Loyola Blakefield, had left the football conference five months earlier because of steep competition across the league.) Soon their remaining three rivals dropped them: The McDonogh School cited player safety; Archbishop Spalding and Gilman recommended that the Panthers form a national schedule without them.

Junior wide receiver Traeshon Holden, left, and senior offensive guard Darrian Dalcourt pray after a pregame team meeting.

Safety concerns are never far from football these days. The links between football and brain damage are now clearer, the risk of chronic traumatic encephalopathy irrefutable. Even young men have been found to have CTE, raising concerns about concussions in youth football and the danger of better teams with larger players running over weaker opponents. “The schools that were concerned about player safety, I think they were on target,” says MIAA Executive Director Lee Dove. “I know St. Frances disagrees with that. But I do believe there is some merit in those concerns.” In 2017, three Gilman players got concussions during a game with St. Frances.

Yet some read other motives into the rival schools’ withdrawal. In Baltimore, the football debate became the subject of call-in radio shows and news stories. “No one had a problem when it was Gilman dominating the MIAA … back then it was a bunch of big white boys with a few brothas,” someone wrote on Facebook, taking St. Frances’s side. Another countered in support of the boycotters: “I don’t blame ’em. St. Frances recruits grown men to play against kids.” References to the players’ “size” and jabs about their being “grown men” sounded racially coded to the supporters of St. Frances, whose team, like the school, is nearly all black.

Though St. Frances’s league opponents have diverse rosters, the schools are generally whiter and wealthier. The debate wasn’t just about prep-school football anymore. It went to the heart of football’s most contentious issues: safety, class and race. It was about the things that plague the sport from its lowest rungs to its highest echelons. And it “exposed a rift in the Baltimore community that many of us know exists, but few of us are willing to address,” Turner, St. Frances’s principal, wrote in a public letter.

The school’s coaches had wanted to play some nationally prominent football teams while remaining in league competition. They had not foreseen a backlash occurring when it did — so late in the year that they believed it was an attempt to sabotage their season. Yet in building the best team possible, Poggi had also played a role in denying his players the chance at real competition locally. Did the sport lose some of its value — to both sides — if most match-ups could be won by four touchdowns or more?

In August, before the first down of the season, the Panthers won their third MIAA championship by default. But there were still four months of football to go.

Sophomore tackle Marcus Johnson.

One of the biggest complaints about Poggi is his recruiting methods. Recruiting athletes is nothing new for the region’s prep schools, but St. Frances’s year-round efforts have been more aggressive than most. The coaches scout youth leagues for future stars, and they poach players from other schools. “We do recruit hard. We really go after it,” Poggi says. To be any good, you have to, he says, especially if you’re not a large public school.

But even more irksome to rivals is the out-of-state recruiting. Seventy percent of the team is from Baltimore, and nearly a dozen players are from elsewhere in Maryland. But a dozen more are from out of state — Delaware and Pennsylvania, and as far away as Florida. St. Frances maintains that many of these players come from communities plagued by the same ills as the poorer corners of Baltimore and can also benefit from the program. Others view the justification of sports-as-socioeconomic-uplift a bit more cynically. As one Maryland administrator told Deadspin: “It just so happens that all the kids who need help happen to be 6-foot-5, 280 pounds and play football.”

Poggi rents two rowhouses in the trendy Canton neighborhood for $96,000 a year for up to 30 players from far away or from chaotic homes. “Everyone thinks we’re just a football school, that we don’t do academics,” a player tells me one night as we sit in the living room. Most Panthers don’t buy the MIAA safety arguments, pointing out teams with linemen as big as theirs. They’ve heard racial slurs on the field. “People think it’s the school with all the black kids, the school with the thugs,” one says. “It’s not like that.”

The kids have their own reasons for coming to St. Frances. Senior running back Joachim Bangda dreams of being a doctor, so that was his condition when he enrolled: help him get an internship at a hospital. St. Frances is a ticket to exposure and stellar training — even if it comes with trade-offs. Wide receiver Jordan Jakes, whose father, Van, played in the NFL, left home and a suburban private school in Georgia to complete his senior year at St. Frances — a school that, he notes, sits across the street from a prison. Linebacker Shane Lee, the top 2019 recruit in all of Maryland, had started at Gilman before transferring to St. John’s College High School, another football factory, in Washington. The choice to come to St. Frances, which didn’t have the same academic resources or prestige as those schools, wasn’t an easy one. “It was like going from the top of the top to the bottom of the barrel,” Lee says.

Regardless, some of the kids practically recruit themselves. Rajah Golden, a junior tight end and fullback, wasn’t officially on the team yet when he started waking at 4 a.m. at his home in Prince George’s County and taking the Metro and then the MARC train to St. Frances. He would nap at the New Carrollton stop. “Every time I went home, it was like I was back in the gutters. I was just mainly around disappointment. I would go outside and see drug addicts,” he says. He couldn’t play football until he paid tuition, so St. Frances offered him a scholarship. “I was persistent,” Golden says. “I was going to come to this school.”

Meanwhile, Poggi has put his money into more than just the football program. He spent $150,000 to supplement the salaries of seven teachers. The school hired an academic coordinator to make sure the players’ grades and SAT scores stay on track, so they can remain eligible for college ball. Players attend mandatory study hall and get weekly academic reports; any grade less than a C, and they can’t play.

With more than 80 players on the roster, nearly 70 percent of the school’s male population is on the team. The recent infusion to the football program has also been a financial boon to the school, where 67 percent of students receive free or reduced-price lunch, and 78 percent get financial aid for tuition, which with fees is about $10,000 a year. About 60 kids are now on football scholarships. Of the roughly $600,000 that requires, about half is funded through donations, thanks to the attention the football team has received, and the other half by Poggi directly. Says Turner, “I joke that we’ve gone from broke back to poor.”

From left, St. Frances players Angelo Carson, Hosea Addison, Jake Larson and Lamoyan Lee head for the team bus.

On an early October afternoon, the team starts with a prayer before spreading out on a YMCA field for practice. Poggi stands at the 50-yard line, wearing his typical uniform: a bright yellow St. Frances T-shirt with the sleeves cut off to make way for his massive arms. (“If you look at Poggi, you don’t think he got any money,” a Panther parent later tells me.) Players separate into defense and offense and divide into groups among their position coaches.

An hour into practice, a growl comes from the field. Junior linebacker DaSean Roberts has taken a hit to the top of his helmet, sending a shock through his neck and down his body. The whistle blows, and Roberts walks off the field, covering his face with his shirt in embarrassment. A teammate tries to comfort him: “I would’ve cried too, bro.”

Holding ice to his neck, Roberts says the shock scared him. It made him think of former Panther Tyree Henry. In 2016, Henry suffered a traumatic spinal cord injury during a game with Gilman. He spent weeks in a rehabilitative hospital, and though he learned to walk again, his football-playing days were over. His case is one reason St. Frances coaches resent the league’s safety fears coming up now. “He’s the worst injury the MIAA has ever seen,” says Russell.

St. Frances’s depth of talent extends to the coaching staff. There are more than 20 assistant coaches, whose ranks include Power Five conference graduates and NFL veterans, not to mention a Super Bowl champion. “Biff operates in a world of lieutenants,” says David Payne, a former Notre Dame player who coaches the Panthers’ offensive line.

The school’s coaches had not foreseen a backlash occurring when it did — so late in the year that they believed it was an attempt to sabotage their season.

Many of the coaches played or worked for Poggi at Gilman. When Poggi first mentioned moving to St. Frances, co-head coach Russell’s first thought was, “There’s no way.” Gilman has nine athletic fields and a pristine 68-acre campus. St. Frances doesn’t even have its own football field. The long-term plan, aided by community redevelopment groups, is to build one next to the school. For now, practices take place at a nearby public school or at the Y, 15 minutes away.

A handful of St. Frances coaches split their time between the team and Poggi’s investment firm, Samuel James Ltd., in Towson, Md. Poggi doesn’t come into the office every day, nor does he keep 9-to-5 hours. Some days, he sleeps in after a restless night, the result of atrial fibrillation, or AFib, a heart arrhythmia that vexes him more than he lets on. He has lieutenants to run his business, too. “I’ve hired a couple of real good guys from Wall Street that actually played for me at Gilman,” he explains one October afternoon in the company conference room.

Down the hall, Russell is on the phone with a representative from the Geico State Champions Bowl Series, a high school football showcase created by a sports marketing firm. The event will happen in December, at the end of the season, and four teams will be selected for two televised matchups on ESPNU. “We’re in the mix,” Russell tells Poggi. The Panthers are hoping to attend for the second time, having beaten a team from Utah the year before, 41 to 3.

Like a lot of elite football coaches, Poggi can get mad and bellow with the best of them, but more often than not, he speaks so softly that it’s hard to hear him. He’s big on reassuring kids. When another coach wants to punish an athlete for bad behavior, he generally argues for leniency.

He was that kid once. He estimates that by 10th grade, he had been kicked out of seven schools. Born in 1960 to an Italian American family of modest means, Francis Xavier Poggi was, by his own account, a poor student and prone to fights. “I didn’t like school,” he says. “I just wanted to play football.”

Gilman took a chance and offered him a scholarship. He went on to play football at the University of Pittsburgh before transferring to Duke, where he met his wife; they have six children. He always wanted to coach, and he took positions at Brown, Temple and The Citadel before his father-in-law started teaching him about investments. “I think the idea of having his only daughter married to a football coach was terrifying to him,” Poggi says. “He gave me a chance. And believe it or not, we did well.” How well, he won’t say, but he is clearly worth a lot of money. He started his company in 1986, and began coaching as a volunteer at Gilman in 1988, taking over as head coach in 1997.

Poggi knows what his critics say about him. That he’s a rich white guy who doesn’t care about black kids as much as he cares about winning. That he uses his money to create an unfair advantage. Some deride St. Frances as the best team money can buy. “Well, it is,” he responds matter-of-factly. “It is the best football team money can buy.”

It’s not just about football, though. “Our whole mission here is to use our resources to get kids into college and get it paid for,” he says. He doesn’t know if any of his players will ever play in the NFL, but they can get a college degree. His coaches’ first year at St. Frances, 14 players went on to college, 11 the first in their families to do so. Last year, 18 graduating players were offered a full or partial athletic collegiate scholarship. This year, he expects the same results.

But why football? Why not help kids get to college without a dangerous sport? “First of all, I don’t know anything else,” he replies. “I can’t go teach art. I can’t teach music.” Football is what he knows. It’s the game he and all his sons played. It was what saved him, what motivated him and what he believes can push his players, too. “We’re going to make sure they’re educated, eligible, able to do the work, and we’re going to compete,” he says. “And damn if it hasn’t worked.”

Assistant coach Messay Hailemariam passes out recruiting mail to St. Frances players before a November practice.

Demon Clowney’s name is already football famous. He’s the second cousin of Jadeveon Clowney, the defensive end picked first overall in the 2014 NFL draft by the Houston Texans. The 6-foot-4, 225-pound Demon (pronounced “duh-mon”) plays the same position for the Panthers, and as a junior prospect, he has already garnered scholarship offers to play for big-name programs like Clemson, Oklahoma, Georgia and Michigan. One Thursday evening in the fall, as we sit at his kitchen table, he scrolls through the dozens of messages from schools on his phone. There’s a motivational text from a Florida coach, a Twitter DM from Clemson. The night before, some Penn State coaches called.

Demon and his mother, Shamea Clowney, are from East Baltimore, not far from St. Frances. In fifth grade, he befriended a boy on his youth basketball team and started spending time with that boy’s parents, Kelley and Chuck Allison, at their suburban home in Frederick, Md. During middle school, he moved in. For Shamea, it was Demon’s way out of the city. She told Kelley: “This is the time where he’s going to end up on the street, or he’s going to be in jail.”

Junior defensive end Chris Braswell, left, and junior running back Isaiah Addison, right, talk with Coach Shaun “Woodie” Woodland during study hall.

Chuck is now Demon’s legal guardian, but when I sat down with the trio of parents recently, they were clear that this wasn’t “The Blind Side” redux. They work as a team. The only disagreement in memory was over whether Demon should go to St. Frances. “I always had a problem with where the school sits,” Shamea says. Her son had left the neighborhood. “I just didn’t want him to come back.” Last summer, three of Demon’s cousins were injured in a shooting. One later died of his injuries. He has lost close friends to gun violence.

The Allisons felt St. Frances offered emotional and academic support that other schools did not. They and Shamea are looking forward to getting him to college. “Hopefully, Demon will be able to change his family’s life and his life with it,” Chuck says.

One of Demon’s best friends on the team is Chris Braswell, another top junior defensive end. Ranked by ESPN as the nation’s No. 10 junior recruit, he lives in the Baltimore County suburbs, though his parents grew up just blocks from St. Frances. “My father, he didn’t want me to grow up in that environment,” Chris told me.

His father, Chris Braswell Sr., runs the family electrical business a few minutes from the school. When Chris was in elementary school, a coach told him that his son had Division I football talent. “I brushed him off,” he recalls. “I said, ‘Look, Chris is 9 years old. He’s still playing with toys.’ ”

Now his mailbox is full of recruitment letters from top programs. “I try to keep him grounded,” Braswell says. “You know, ‘Just don’t let this stuff go to your head. You’re going to school to get a degree in something.’ ”

St. Frances players cheer on their teammate, junior Marvonte’ Jefferson-Green, as he lifts weights during practice.

Friday nights always begin with chapel — one part Bible lesson, one part motivational speech, held in the school cafeteria. It’s all part of Poggi’s mantra of “building men for others.” It’s why some of the coaches call their work a ministry.

It’s Nov. 2, and Poggi hands notecards to the players as they file in, loosening their ties and removing their navy blazers. He gives them a few moments to write, telling them to put down the thing that hurts them the most.

“Listen and listen good,” Poggi begins. “Sit up! Back there. Sit up.” Raised Catholic, Poggi now attends an evangelical megachurch, and he chooses a Bible verse for every chapel. Today, he recites from the gospel of Luke: “Whoever can be trusted with very little can also be trusted with much.” It’s about the little things, he reminds them: being prepared, practicing drills. Even playing games against lesser competitors. “This game is not about our opponent,” he tells them. “We’re always playing against who?”

“Ourselves,” they respond in unison.

Poggi turns to the papers in his hand. He begins to read their anonymous responses aloud. “It hurts you most …”

“… when someone talks about my weight.”

“… when someone calls me worthless, says I’m not going to be anything.”

“… when someone makes fun of my reading.”

“… when people look down on me because of where I came from.”

Poggi reads them like a litany, closing with a lesson about understanding each other’s pain. “We’re all made in the image of God,” he tells the boys.

Later that night, in the driving rain, the Panthers play the only Maryland team on their schedule: Silver Oak Academy, a residential school for juvenile offenders. Before the first quarter is up, the Panthers score 42 points, and the mercy rule — when the play clock keeps running once the margin gets to 35, usually in the second half— has already kicked in. The final score is 69-0.

The next week is worse: A team from Ohio arrives three hours late for the game, and most of the players refuse to get off the bus because of conflicts with their coaches. “They came all the way for this?” a Panther asks, incredulous. St. Frances wins by forfeit after waiting in uniform for four hours in the rain. “I know you’re disappointed,” Poggi tells the team as they huddle on the field after 10 p.m. “I’m disappointed, too. You’re one of the finest teams in the country, and you shouldn’t have to put up with this horses—. The way you get treated around the game of football …” He trails off. “Let’s get back to work on Monday.”

Sophomore linebacker Aaron Willis tapes his fingers before a game in November.

The next Saturday, Nov. 17, the parking lot at Archbishop Spalding High School in Severn, Md., overflows for Spalding’s game with Calvert Hall — the final matchup in the Maryland Christian Schools Invitational. Since the MIAA playoffs have been canceled, the tournament gives a few of St. Frances’s former rivals a chance at postseason games.

This one is a nail-biter. After leading for most of the first half, Spalding lets Calvert Hall catch up, tying the score in the third quarter, 21-21. Fans scream and ring cowbells and let air horns loose. It’s a diverse crowd, full of white and black faces. There’s a dance team and cheerleaders and concessions and music. In other words, it’s a real high school football game, the kind of old-fashioned, high-stakes rivalry that the St. Frances players have missed out on all season.

Near the packed stands, a parent weighs in on St. Frances. “They can play their independent schedule, and we can play ours,” he says, adding, “The recruiting should be geographically sensitive.” A Spalding fan mentions fears of players getting hurt. “It’s not fair,” he says. “That’s the Alabama of high school football.” It’s an apt description, with three former St. Frances players set to be on Alabama’s roster next season. (A week after the Spalding-Calvert Hall game, Braswell also verbally commits to the Crimson Tide.)

On the sideline before Calvert Hall wins, I run into Spalding’s athletic director, Jeff Parsons, whose face falls when I utter the words “St. Frances.” “I have no comment,” he says. “No comment.” That’s roughly the same response I got from the athletic programs of the other four schools still in the conference, which either would make no further comment about their decisions or did not respond to emails. Donald Davis, the Calvert Hall coach who organized the invitational, did not return phone calls. At the game, I ask Parsons if there will be a resolution to St. Frances’s membership in the league next year. “I don’t know,” he says. “That’s in the league leadership’s hands.”

The MIAA’s Dove hopes that he and the board of directors can come to a decision soon, so that member schools can “get back to normalcy next year without all the distraction.” The goal is to have St. Frances continue participating in other MIAA sports but let the varsity football team be independent. Current regulations do not allow this, so an exception will have to be made. “Everyone wants to know how things are going to pan out,” Dove says. “We’re trying our best.”

Poggi and his players wait on the field before a game against a team from Toronto on Nov. 16 at Baltimore’s Patterson Park. They went on to win, 64-0.

Five days before Christmas, three flights take off from Baltimore, carrying the Panthers to Georgia, where they will play in the Geico Bowl. All season, this has been the prize the players and coaches have focused on — their chance at a semblance of a real championship. They’ll be playing the Lee County High School Trojans from Leesburg, Ga., at that team’s stadium on Saturday night, Dec. 22.

The morning of the championship, the Panthers receive word that Poggi might not make it to the game. He was slated to arrive on his private jet that afternoon, but his AFib has been acting up. On the bus ride to the game, the team is quiet, save for the sound of music seeping through headphones. Suburban sprawl turns to cotton fields and pecan groves. “Looks a little different than Baltimore,” says a coach.

Before suiting up after arrival, the players are instructed to go around the corner of the locker room, where a familiar face greets them. “He had to make a surprise entrance!” one Panther shouts as the players line up to hug Poggi. “Thank you for your prayers,” their coach repeats over and over as he embraces each boy.

His pregame talk is a mix of the usual sacred and profane. “People think you don’t have a chance” — not an entirely accurate charge but a motivating one as he rattles off their disadvantages: Lee County’s 15-0 season, the expected bad calls from local refs, the hometown crowd. He reminds them: “This team is built on God! He is our rock, our fortress, our redeemer.” And a few beats later, after telling me — the only woman in the room — to put my fingers in my ears, he hollers, to cheers: “I want you to give them an a– whipping!”

Lee County doesn’t have the depth of Division I recruits that St. Frances has, but it has the home-field advantage. The Trojans’ 7,000-seat stadium fills to capacity before kickoff. Country music blares as the Panthers march in two-by-two. “Y’all might be college kids,” says a silver-haired man by the gate, appraising the team. Another fan taunts: “Welcome to South Georgia, baby!”

In the first half, the Trojans give as good as they get. The Panthers’ starting defense allows its first touchdown of the entire season, and the Trojans tie the score, first 7-7, then 14-14. In the first quarter, the Panthers’ star defensive end, Braswell, lies injured on the field — his bad shoulder has dislocated. The team trainers take several minutes to push it back in, marveling at his ability to endure pain. “Bras is a beast!”

On the sideline, there are grumbles about the referees. Poggi does not look happy, pacing, breath showing in the cold night air. By the end of the first half, by Poggi’s count, St. Frances has lost 110 yards in penalties to Lee County’s five, though the Panthers are leading, 20-14. By the third quarter, Braswell’s shoulder has popped out of its socket for a third time. Clowney comforts his teammate as Braswell glumly stands on the sideline, out for the rest of the game.

Still, the second half belongs to St. Frances. The offensive line holds the Trojan defense while running back Blake Corum runs for an 87-yard touchdown. Clowney records a sack. Wide receiver Traeshon Holden catches a beautiful pass from quarterback John Griffith. Bangda runs for two more touchdowns. The Panthers pull away, and the Lee County stands start to empty.

As the clock runs out, the scoreboard reads 43-14. It’s the Panthers’ 23rd consecutive win, and they end the season with a record of 10-0. The team hoists a silver-and-gold trophy and mugs for the cameras. “A lot of adversity we overcame,” Clowney says as he walks off the field. “St. Frances, we don’t have much, but we did it.” Back in the locker room, Poggi prays with the team, giving thanks for the kids: “Let them really enjoy this win.” He promises them rings.

The Panthers finish the season ranked as high as fourth in the nation. Their Geico Bowl win may not have delivered the national championship their coach had promised them, but it was something perhaps more important: a real game for once. And with or without a league, there is always next season, a harder schedule, another chance to be the undisputed best.

Tiffany Stanley is a writer in Washington.

Credits: Story by Tiffany Stanley. Photos by Toni L. Sandys. Designed by Michael Johnson. Photo Editing by Dudley M. Brooks.