The problems facing Martin Luther King High School in Philadelphia extend beyond the football field. (Mike Roemer/AP)

The problems facing Martin Luther King High School in Philadelphia extend beyond the football field. (Mike Roemer/AP)

High School football players always find preparing for the season difficult. Practices are long and hot. Competition for playing time can be fierce. But it’s a lot harder when some of your teammates are your former rivals, and you’re not sure your coach will be paid. Jere Longman, who wrote a story for the New York Times about the football program at Martin Luther King High School in Philadelphia, joined Bill Littlefield.

Highlights from Bill’s interview with Jere Longman

BL: Let’s begin with some discussion of the makeup of the student body at Martin Luther King High School. The school has recently absorbed much of the student body of Germantown High School, which was closed for budgetary reasons. What’s the challenge there?

JL: Well, Philadelphia faces a $300-million budget shortfall. It’s a chronically troubled school district, so it has closed 23 schools and, as of now, school is set to open Sept. 9. As of now there are no assistant principals, counselors. There’s one teacher for every 33 students. So the school has many academic challenges as well as athletic challenges.

Football-wise, both of these schools, Martin Luther King and Germantown, are in North West Philadelphia, so the problem is that the schools were fierce rivals for decades. They play annually on Thanksgiving. So there was the issue of sort of forming a coherent ream from rivals. As well as there’s some concern, some people believe it’s overstated, that these players are from different neighborhoods and there could be problems with violence as students cross neighborhood lines in a very provincial city. You know the football players seem to get along fine — it’s just a question of when school starts.

BL: 18-year-old Dontae Angus transferred from Germantown, and he is now perhaps King High School’s best player. He’s received attention from various college football programs. Tell us a little bit about him and the challenges that he faces as he tries to become the first person in his family to get to college.

JL: Dontae Angus is an offensive and defensive tackle. He’s 6’6”, weighs 320 lbs. He’s an artist. He’s built bicycles from spare parts. He wants to be an athletic shoe designer. Terrifically nice and gentle kid, and he’s been offered a scholarship at the University of Florida, so he has the chance to play at one of the elite teams in the nation, but he has to become eligible academically. For instance, this summer he has to complete online courses in English and mathematics, but his family doesn’t have an Internet connection. His mother is struggling to keep the lights on, keep the water on.

BL: On the eve of the football season, are you optimistic about how things are going to work out for the whole team at King High School and for the student body in general?

JL: That’s a very good question. The team has, according to one of these high school rating services, they have three of the top 50 players in Pennsylvania, so the football team has an encouraging future this season. But the school district is another story. School opens in 30 days, and you know the legislature has money in the budget for Philadelphia, but they’re requiring $100 million in union concessions. And so you know it’s a possibility they could have a strike. I think the football team feels encouraged, but the broader issue is undetermined, unresolved, so we’ll see.