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Camden, Woodrow Wilson football teams share bonds, seek sectional titles

For the first time, Camden and Woodrow Wilson both will play in South Jersey championship games in the same season.

Camden senior Donald Williams grew up a Woodrow Wilson fan. Now he's a "Panther baby." But he's typical of the connections between the city's two football teams, both of which are in championship games on Friday night.
Camden senior Donald Williams grew up a Woodrow Wilson fan. Now he's a "Panther baby." But he's typical of the connections between the city's two football teams, both of which are in championship games on Friday night.Read moreChip Fox/Staff photographer

Camden has been described as a city with three major religions: Christianity, Islam, and basketball.

But it's a football town, too.

On Friday night, for only the second time, the gridiron squads from Camden High School and Woodrow Wilson High School will play in the championship game of their respective South Jersey group tournaments. The other time was in 1974.

It's a dilemma for football fans who want to watch both teams pursue each program's second sectional crown – since both games will kick off at 7 o'clock, with one in Haddonfield and the other in Burlington Township – but a source of no shortage of pride in the state of the sport in the city.

"People always say in Camden, 'It's basketball, basketball, basketball,' " Camden senior defensive tackle Tidiane Bamba said. "But it's football, too."

Added Camden senior defensive back Donald Williams: "The last seven, eight years, it's been football and basketball."

Camden's streets, parks, youth programs, and high schools have been fertile ground for producing outstanding football players in the modern era, which began with the institution of the state tournament system in the mid-1970s.

The list of NFL players who have sprung from the city in that period include Camden's Art Still, Derrick Ramsey, Reggie Lawrence, Martin Sartin, and George Hegamin, and Woodrow Wilson's Mike Rozier – the Heisman Trophy winner as a Nebraska running back in 1983 — along with Donovin Darius, Turk McBride, Rashad Baker, Lorenzo Freeman, and Jamaal Green.

Team success has been a little less pronounced. Camden won its lone sectional title in 1976. Woodrow Wilson captured its only crown in 2001, when current head coach Preston Brown and his brother Melik, a Tigers' assistant coach, were star players for the East Camden squad.

That's what makes this era such a golden time for football in the city. The city has produced plenty of terrific teams, but usually it's one or the other: When Camden is up, Woodrow Wilson is down, and vice versa.

This year, both teams are dynamite. Camden is 9-1, with a nine-game winning streak heading into Friday's South Jersey Group 2 title game at Haddonfield (10-0). Woodrow Wilson is 8-2 heading into the South Jersey Group 3 final at Burlington Township (10-0).

If Woodrow Wilson wins on Friday – or Thanksgiving Day, when the Tigers and Panthers will clash in Farnham Park in the annual renewal of one of South Jersey's best rivalries – it will mark the first time in the 83 years that the two programs have been playing football that they will have simultaneous nine-win seasons, per research by sports historian Chuck Langerman.

"It's something special," Brown said. "When you think about the fact that both programs have limited resources, and all the things that we have to endure, to have both teams have the kind of success we've had, it really says something."

Adding to the excitement are the myriad connections between the programs. The Brown brothers and Wilson assistant coach Brandon Bather coached at Camden under current Panthers' boss Dwayne Savage.

"I'll be forever grateful to Dwayne Savage for giving me my start," Brown said.

Savage was an assistant under Mike McBride at Woodrow Wilson in 2001, when the Brown brothers led the Tigers to the Group 3 title. Camden assistants Nasir Jones and Maurice Taylor are Woodrow Wilson graduates.

Camden assistant Matt Marshall, a star for the Panthers in the mid-2000s who played at Arkansas, grew up on Moore Street in East Camden, down the block from the Brown brothers.

And that's just the coaching staffs. The rosters are filled with athletes with connections, from youth sports in the city to family ties. Camden sophomore Alijah Clark and Woodrow Wilson freshman Amari Clark, an all-purpose standout who already has a Rutgers offer, are first cousins.

"There are a lot of kids on both teams that are related, family friends, grew up together," Savage said.

Williams, a Rutgers recruit, grew up a Woodrow Wilson fan in East Camden and played for the Camden PAL youth team with most of the Tigers' upperclassmen. He moved to Camden's sending district in eighth grade.

"I used to love Wilson," Williams said. "Now I'm a Panther, baby."

Williams and Bamba, along with Brown, take a magnanimous approach to their rivals.

"I root for them every day of the year except Turkey Day," Brown said of Camden.

Said Bamba of Woodrow Wilson: "I root for them. They're representing my city."

Woodrow Wilson stars Stanley King and Fadil Diggs have a more competitive perspective on the Tigers' rivals from the Parkside section of the city.

"I don't care about them," said King, a wide receiver and Louisville recruit. "I only care about my team."

Such hard-edged focus will be universal on Thanksgiving, when the teams clash in the annual Turkey Bowl.

But on Friday night, the teams will be united in this sense: Each will be carrying the city's banner in a road game against an undefeated opponent, with a chance to make Camden football history.

"I hope we both win," Williams said. "Then, I hope we beat them on Thanksgiving."