Just over a year ago, Bill Littlefield spoke with Jere Longman, who had written a story for the New York Times about the football program at Martin Luther King High School in Philadelphia. Citing the city’s budget crisis, Philadelphia’s administrators had combined Martin Luther King with Germantown High School, which was closing.
The subject appealed to documentary filmmaker Judd Ehrlich, who has made We Could Be King, a film about the first football season after the merger.
Judd Ehrlich and Ed Dunn, coach of the Martin Luther King High football team, joined Bill Littlefield on Only A Game.
Highlights from Bill’s Conversation With Judd Ehrlich And Ed Dunn.
BL: Ed, early in the film, you talk a little about your motivation. Your friend’s death [as a teenager] inspired you to be a teacher. Did it also lead you to believe that football as an activity makes it less likely that young men will get into trouble?
ED: Yes, not just only his death but [also] kind of our two paths in life, and part of the reason why I wasn’t in some of the environments that he was in was because of the activities that were made available to me, the primary one would be football. And so that enabled me to have a positive outlet for all of my teenage angst, whether it be anger or boredom, it gave me something to believe in.
BL: One of the players who’s most prominent in the film is Sal Henderson, at least until he’s arrested and charged with robbery. Judd, I’m sure you weren’t pleased to see that, but was it the type of storyline you feared might become part of your movie?
JE: Something that we talk about in the film is that this is not an uncommon occurrence in neighborhoods like northwest Philadelphia. By accident of birth, these kids are dealing with things that a lot of other kids don’t have to deal with. This was a reality that happened in front of us, and it was something we wanted to shed some light on.
BL: There’s a moment in the film that I found especially powerful, when one of the assistant coaches – Michelle Grace – is making a case for budgetary inclusion of sports, and she says, “A lot of these kids wouldn’t come to school if it weren’t for sports.” Is that true?
ED: A lot of these kids, it’s hard for them at their age and where they come from to make a connection between academics and success. And so we try to use football as a carrot because football is one of those things that’s easy to understand and easy to fall in love with. I think that all kids value education and value the academic piece, I just don’t think they completely understand the work that needs to go into it in order to be successful and go to college.
BL: Are the circumstances, both academic and athletic, at Martin Luther King High any more stable now than when you had to coach without a salary?
ED: I think that we’re moving in the right direction. The state is providing some more funding for schools to make sure that we have sustainability for these kids. Because a lot of times, schools are the most secure, consistent places for these kids, and the attention that the film has brought has brought additional resources from companies like Dick’s Sporting Goods and Under Armor sponsoring us, and not only from big companies but from the community. From parents to graduates, alumni, whatever the case may be, everybody wants an all-hands-on-deck approach not only athletically, but academically. And I think that when more people get involved, you can provide more opportunities for these student-athletes.