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St. Frances football program’s winding journey to national prominence featured in HBO documentary

The gunshots came in rapid succession — bang! bang! bang! — from beyond the fence of the Dunbar High football field in East Baltimore, freezing the St. Frances football team during practice last year.

The Panthers were wide-eyed and silent, some glancing over to where the shots came from and others toward their coaches. For them, it’s a familiar situation.

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“It’s sad, but it’s normal in our city. So when things happen like that you just have to adjust to it," said then-senior star safety Jordan Toles, now a freshman at defending national champion LSU.

The scene is one of many in HBO’s new documentary “The Cost of Winning,” a four-part series that chronicles the Panthers' 2019 season, that takes viewers inside the lives of the players, their everyday struggles and how football and the support of the school’s coaching staff and faculty helps them succeed.

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The documentary debuts at 9 p.m. Tuesday - two half-hour episodes will be shown then with the final two half-hour episodes set to begin the same time Wednesday night.

The shooting incident displays the gravity of the obstacles they often come across.

“Just from a personal perspective, I got into the business to tell positive stories about the African American community. That’s not always easy and sometimes it’s particularly challenging when you’re dealing with inner city stories,” said Rob Ford, the documentary’s co-director. “The thing about this one for me personally that makes it so powerful is it has such a great balance of a realistic depiction of some of the ills of the community in Baltimore, but it also shows family, it shows community, it shows entrepreneurship, it shows emphasis of education.”

The story of the St. Frances football program, which was founded in 2009, is well-documented.

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In 2016, Henry Russell and a band of former Gilman assistant coaches went to St. Frances to rescue the fledgling program. The following year, co-coach Biff Poggi, a polarizing figure who has personally helped finance the program, came aboard, and the Panthers quickly emerged as a national power.

After a dominant 13-0 season in 2017, in which the Panthers outscored their opponents by an average of 36 points in winning a second straight Maryland Interscholastic Athletic Association title, their league foes took them off their schedules, citing safety concerns. They said the Panthers were bigger, stronger and more talented because of their recruiting advantages.

Competing without a practice field or home stadium, the small Catholic school that was founded in 1828 and stands across the street from a prison found its own path to prominence succeeding against a national schedule.

The documentary’s featured 2019 senior class, including Toles, outside linebacker Chris Braswell (Alabama) and running back Blake Corum (Michigan), went 44-3 in its time at St. Frances, ending its final season with an 11-1 mark and No. 4 national ranking. Of the team’s 30 seniors, 26 earned scholarships that combined to total $4 million.

In the documentary, the program’s success shows through all the challenges the players face on a personal level.

Defensive end Demon Clowney rattles off an extensive number of his family members and friends who have died because of street violence.

“All of these people were shot?” a producer asks.

“Yeah, every last one of them,” Clowney replies.

Alonzo “Ace” Colvin grew up in foster care and shared why he made the decision to leave Digital Harbor, where he was the team’s unquestioned star, to fight for playing time at St. Frances.

“I wanted more for myself and I had to make the decision on my own. So I had to look at the bigger picture and I see how they care about their players and their students and everything. That’s why I came here," he says in the documentary. “It wasn’t just a football decision for me to come to St. Frances at all.”

Poggi admires his players' resiliency and believes the documentary shows how people who care — players, coaches and teachers — can make a difference.

“When this goes out and somebody in South Dakota sees it, or somebody in Wisconsin — most places — they don’t understand what it’s like every day for these kids in the city,” he said. “So when you get a kid that is able to go through all the stuff they go through, and wind up at a Bowie State on a scholarship, what people are going to see is a kid that is a survivor. That kid has something in him that makes him unwilling to quit.

"So much around our city is not good. And so much [of the outside thinking] is 'the kids are out of control‚ and they’re thugs and they’re not interested in learning’ — this debunks that in a powerful way.”

In one scene, Poggi is in his office talking with staff, faculty members and Braswell when somebody approaches the door.

“Excuse me, coach, are you lost?” Poggi asks. “This is the football office at St. Frances.”

It was Alabama coach Nick Saban. From a 2-10 record in 2015 to a visit from the six-time national championship winner, the St. Frances program has beaten incredible odds.

Russell was impressed with how well the players acted like themselves in front of the HBO cameras, providing a realistic portrayal of the individual stories blended in with team camaraderie.

“That’s what I’m most excited about people seeing — all the things they overcome. The message we deliver to them is keep going, don’t quit and keep pushing to find a way,” he said. “That’s what these kids are all about — finding a way and getting to see so many of them go off to college is so rewarding. I’m excited for people to see the process these kids go through to reach that next level.

"A lot of people say, ‘Oh, they’re so lucky to receive a scholarship.’ But on the flip side, they don’t see all the parts that go into it and this will be a great look into that.”

An overflow crowd is crammed into the school’s chapel on early signing day last December. As has become custom, the table in front barely accommodates all the seniors who are putting pen to paper — this time a total of 11.

Parents are asked to stand up and say a few words. Roman Green, whose son Ja’Khi committed to Maryland, relays a message that hits home.

“This is something big for us,” he says. “We got something to go home and sit in our rooms while we’re watching the game and say, ‘My son has done something to make me proud.’ Khi, you’re the best thing to happen to me, man. You making me proud, and that’s all I have to say. I love you boy.”

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