RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
At Martin Luther King High School in Philadelphia, football is more than a sport. It's an escape.
(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "WE COULD BE KING")
UNIDENTIFIED STUDENT #1: I plan to move out of Philly 'cause it's not getting any better.
UNIDENTIFIED STUDENT #2: Hearing gunshots on a daily basis was nothing new. If you live in Philadelphia, I'm sure you agree, life is rough. Times are hard and sometimes you want to give up. I do, too.
UNIDENTIFIED STUDENT #3: Before I went to Germantown, now I'm at King. I'm 6'6", 320, played football. Growing up, life wasn't perfect.
MARTIN: Last year, funding cuts in Philadelphia meant Martin Luther King had to absorb students from its rival high school which had to close. The merger created all kinds of tension in the hallways and on the football field. Enter 27-year-old former math teacher Ed Dunn.
ED DUNN: Be proud to be here. Be excited about being here. It's August. It's football season.
MARTIN: Dunn volunteered to coach the Martin Luther King Cougars, even though they hadn't won a single game all last season. What then happens to the team is the stuff of fairy tale endings, complete with a district championship. The story is told in a new documentary called "We Could Be King." When I spoke with Coach Dunn, we started talking about those early days after the schools merged.
DUNN: Those first couple of practices, there was a lot of tension because, you know, no one knew each other. Everyone was a little competitive of their spot. There was some suspicion of each other. There was some suspicion of me because I had come over from Germantown.
And everybody wanted to win. But they were curious as to hey, can this combination really be something that's successful and put us in a position to win. So it was a time of great excitement but also a time of great anxiety because there was so much unknown at the time.
MARTIN: You were a math teacher at Germantown, but you lost your job when the downsizing happened. Why didn't you look for a job teaching somewhere else or coaching somewhere else? You are married, have a small child, that - I imagine stability was important to you.
DUNN: Yes, definitely. But I think that ultimately, the kids in our program had way more on the line than I ever had on the line because I had a college degree. You know, I had started my career. You know, we had kids that had scholarship opportunities on the line and kids that had some social things that they needed to deal with that football allowed them to cope with. And so we were all there for them and they are our number one priority.
MARTIN: The film profiles a couple of kids on your team, Dontae Angus and Sal Henderson. Let's start with Dontae. Can you just give us a sense of him and what he was up against in that season?
DUNN: Yeah. Dontae Angus is the stereotypical picture of a offensive lineman or the big football player. He is 6'7", 320 pounds, but he's extremely athletic at the same time. And so he is like the recruiter's dream. But the ironic part about Dontae, he's not a lifelong football player.
He's somebody who kind of was brought to the sport because of his physical gifts. And so there was an adjustment for him, not only transitioning to being in a football environment and relating to kids on the team and things like that, but there was also a transition from going from a guy that kind of was just floating through school to someone where it's like you have the opportunity to play college football and now you have to become a college student.
MARTIN: And Sal Henderson, who ends up getting arrested halfway through the season, how does that change the team dynamic when Sal leaves this way?
DUNN: Well, Sal and Dontae are kind of opposites, to a certain extent. They're both extremely talented. However, Sal's a kid that's grown up playing football. And everyone knows who Sal Henderson is. Across the city, they all know him as this great football player. And so a young lady had a cell phone stolen from her on the bus. Sal was not the person who stole the phone nor was he the person who held the weapon. However, because he was there and present at the time, he kind of got looped in with the crowd, which is unfortunate.
But frankly, it's a reality of a lot of kids in our community that sometimes not keeping the best company, even though you had the best intentions, can land you in a compromised situation. And that's what happened with Sal. And so when he was taken away from us, some of that doubt started to creep into people's minds. Because not only was he a great player, if you ever get a chance to spend time with Sal or see the movie, you know he's incredibly charismatic and that anybody who spends time around him falls in love with Sal.
And so when that personality and that person, their heart, their spirit, and all of those things are taken away from you and you can't speak to them, you can see 'em, you don't know what's going on with him, and you're worried about him, it becomes a huge distraction.
MARTIN: I mean, this is a team - MLK hadn't won one game the previous year. What changed tactically? What's your coaching strategy? What did you do?
DUNN: First of all, sports is a lot like education. And the more individualized attention that these kids get, the more improvement that we see. And so one of the biggest things is that I got a lot more people involved. So when we talk about the community get involved, literally we have another eight coaches on our staff that are volunteers that don't get paid a dime and they spend all of their time.
Every day I'm at practice, they're at practice. And it really allowed our kids to benefit from having that additional attention and that love and care that they kind of need.
MARTIN: What happened to Dontae and Sal? Where are they now?
DUNN: So Dontae, on national signing day, committed to the University of West Virginia. So he's wrapping up his senior year, getting his academics together so that he can take advantage of that scholarship opportunity. Sal is, was released six weeks or so after he was incarcerated, and he's currently on probation, but he's getting his life back together.
He was actually in a play at school today, so that was pretty cool. So yeah, you know, all these kids have multiple sides to 'em. It's great to kind of see that development and see these guys grow up. And I want to be a part of their lives for the rest of their lives. So this is not a temporary thing.
MARTIN: Ed Dunn is the coach of the Martin Luther King Cougars football team. The documentary "We Could Be King" by director Judd Ehrlich can be seen this coming week on ESPN2. Coach Dunn, thanks so much for taking the time to talk with us. It's been a pleasure.
DUNN: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.