About a decade ago, Troy Gore and a few other Philadelphia firefighters began discussing a plan to bolster the lives of teenagers at a Northwest Philly school where students were sometimes ridiculed for wearing "corny uniforms."
While responding to an emergency call from Imhotep Charter, at 21st and Godfrey, they approached Mama Christine Wiggins, the school's founder and CEO, about starting a football team.
Wiggins eventually green-lighted the proposal, putting the coordination duties in the hands of Gore, Lamont Belvey, and the other firefighters.
"A lot has gone into this," Gore said. "Time, energy, money, donations of chin straps from the Philadelphia Soul, digging out blocking dummies from Temple's Dumpster, using a practice field that's a dust bowl."
In its ninth year as a varsity program and with Gore as associate head coach, once-downtrodden Imhotep, where many students struggle with financial and family problems, is on the verge of becoming a state champion.
The Panthers, playing for the largely overlooked Public League, will face South Fayette, of suburban Pittsburgh, in the PIAA Class AA final at noon Saturday at Hersheypark Stadium.
They're the first Public League football team to play for a state title.
"It's real exciting," Imhotep senior linebacker Steve Denby said Wednesday after practice. "We've come so far as a team. Now, we're just trying to write the final chapter."
Imhotep, founded in 1998, is an African-centered school with an enrollment of about 600 that promotes "personal faith, a creative spirit, personal responsibility, and a positive purpose." The students wear dashikis, brightly colored shirts seen widely in West Africa.
Marc Wilson coached the Panthers through 2011, turning the reins over last year to former West Catholic assistant Albie Crosby.
"I never wanted my own team," said Crosby, 44. "It was when West was supposed to close that I decided to come here. When I made a commitment to these young men, I wasn't going to go back on it."
Crosby, who says his goal from Day 1 was to capture a state crown, led the Panthers last season to the state semifinals before they fell to Wyomissing, 35-13.
"I feel that loss to Wyomissing was meant to happen," senior offensive lineman Taleem Muhammad said. "It humbled us, made us want to work harder. We're where we are now because of it."
Exemplifying the hardships faced by many of his teammates, Muhammad and his family were without a home for about a month last year. They lived in a car parked on a Germantown side street.
"I'm not the only one with a story like that," the 6-foot-6, 300-pounder said. "A lot of kids have their own things to deal with every day. That stuff makes us mentally stronger, helps us learn how to fight through adversity."
Along with his mother, Karla Tyler, Muhammad and his three younger siblings now live in a Southwest Philly home. It's those achievements, school administrators say, that mean the most.
Denby said Crosby, who helped West Catholic win a Class AA state title in 2010 and place second in 2008, serves as a "father figure" for some players.
"He puts a lot of time and energy into what he does," Imhotep athletic director Andre Noble said. "He's way more than just a football coach here."
Thirteen of Imhotep's players, including Muhammad, have Division I or I-AA scholarship offers. Two seniors, multipurpose star Deandre Scott and offensive tackle Aaron Ruff, have committed to Arizona State and Temple, respectively.
As a charter school, Imhotep can draw students from anywhere within the city limits.
"Most of Imhotep's kids are from that neighborhood," Public League football chairman Ken Geiser said. "It's because they're winning that people are suddenly making a big fuss about it."
Crosby, who is director of the Philadelphia Eagles' youth football camps, is well aware of the perception that he "recruits" the best players from across the city, which would be a violation of PIAA rules.
"That's not the case," he said. "Most of our players live within a four- or five-mile radius of the school. I would say it's about 70 or 75 percent."
Imhotep is in a talent-rich area, drawing players from weight-ball programs such as the Oak Lane Wildcats, Mount Airy Bantoms, and Northwest Raiders.
Crosby noted that the bulk of this season's catalysts, including quarterback Andre Dreuitt-Parks, Muhammad, and Ruff, were enrolled at Imhotep before his arrival.
"I can't control all the talk out there," the coach said.
Love 'em or hate 'em, the Panthers are a win from accomplishing their goal.
"We've already won," Crosby asserted. "We're in the state final. These kids can say they were the first Public League team to make it to Hershey."
Class AA State Final Preview
Imhotep Charter vs. South Fayette
Noon Saturday at Hersheypark Stadium.
Twitter. Follow @ozoneinq for updates.
TV. Live on the Pennsylvania Cable Network.
About South Fayette. The Lions (15-0), with a spread scheme, average 45.1 points. . . . Junior Brett Brumbaugh has completed 228 of 371 passes for 3,611 yards and 38 touchdowns, with seven interceptions. The 6-foot-4, 200-pound junior has scholarship offers from Akron and Temple. . . . Brumbaugh's No. 1 target is senior wideout Justin Watson, a Penn recruit with 62 catches for 1,402 yards and 20 scores. . . .. An undersize offensive line is anchored by center Spencer Girman (5-11, 205) and tackles Ben Berkovitz (6-2, 225) and Anthony Davidson (6-2, 215).
About Imhotep. The Panthers (12-2) have scored 40 or more points in 11 of 14 outings. . . . Imhotep can turn to three swift ballcarriers: Nasir Bonner, Mike Waters, and Tyliek Raynor. . . . Andre Dreuitt-Parks, a third-year starter, has completed 78 of 136 throws for 1,503 yards and 24 TDs. . . . WR Denniston Moore has 36 catches for 779 yards and 13 scores. . . . An imposing offensive line is composed of center Gordon Thomas (6-0, 305), guards John Carlo Valentine (6-4, 285) and Aaron Ruff (6-5, 280), tackles Taleem Muhammad (6-6, 300) and Antoine Williams (6-3, 280), and tight end Naseir Upshur (6-3, 225). Ruff is headed to Temple.
Analysis. The speed-laden Panthers score five times, and their bend-but-don't-break defense holds Brumbaugh and Co. to a pair of TDs.
Pick. Imhotep, 33-14.
- Rick O'Brien