JORDAN ALEXANDER, middle linebacker for the Martin Luther King High School Cougars, worried about his school consolidating with on-and-off-the-field rival Germantown High School last year due to budget cuts plaguing the School District of Philadelphia.
"In ninth grade during the traditional Thanksgiving game, players and fans were fighting so bad that police rode horses onto the field during a snowstorm and hit people with batons to break it up," Alexander said.
Now with graduation weeks away, Alexander laughs about that brawl. He and his teammates overcame their differences, won King's first-ever Public League championship, and walked the red carpet at the Tribeca Film Festival for the premiere of "We Could Be King," an 80-minute documentary chronicling their underdog journey.
"We put aside all of our problems and came together as one on the field," Alexander said at the premiere.
Director Judd Ehrlich moved to Philadelphia to spend four months filming sweltering practices, classroom bullying, family dinners and every touchdown of the season. After sponsor Dick's Sporting Goods approached Tribeca about making a high-school sports story dealing with defunded public education, Ehrlich, a Brooklyn native whose history with Tribeca dates back to his 2008 "Run for Your Life" film, pitched five ideas regarding New York schools and one about a Philadelphia merger he read about in the New York Times.
"My intention is for people to care about a world they might not have known about," Ehrlich said. "Now people will hopefully know a little more about what's going on in Philadelphia and urban America with the state of public education and the state of funding for athletics, which is always the first thing to get cut."
Stealing every scene with his thick beard and primal screams, head coach Ed Dunn motivated his players to channel their hostility with each other into a unified driving force on the gridiron.
"People might think he was hype just to be cinematic, but that's really how he is," Alexander said.
Dunn, 27, wasn't even on the payroll for half of the season. A former math teacher at Germantown High, he, along with his supportive coaching staff, volunteered to revitalize the program. As a first-year high school head football coach, he led the Cougars from a two-year losing streak to the city title.
"I grew up in Philly, I'm a 10-minute walk from school, so these are my neighbors, my family members," Dunn said. "I have a sense of responsibility and excitement to give back to my community. When you're given things, you want to give back and hopefully I've motivated these guys to give to maybe 10 other people and we'll see that ripple effect."
Right guard Frank Darden credits the team's motto for inspiring a previously unthinkable bond.
"Never put your brother down," Darden said. "Coach Dunn says I love all of you because you're all my little brothers."
Nine players signed letters of intent with college programs on National Signing Day, a previously unthinkable notion.
"When you hear the name King and you think about the past with all the fighting, we're none of that," Alexander said. "We're good students, most of us on honor roll, just coming out to play football to get away from everything going on in the streets."