Pride Inspiring Panthers To Give All They've Got Mastbaum Emerges From "The Old Cemo" To The Big Game.

Posted: December 05, 1992

After the players' leather jackets and eyeglasses are safe inside his office, Mastbaum football coach John Murphy locks the door, slips the knob into his pocket and heads off to practice.

"The doorknobs in this building are always getting stolen because they're all brass," Murphy said. "I have five of them stashed all over the place. I even have one in my car."

Then there's the practice field.

Franklin Playground in Kensington is a former cemetery filled with chuckholes, ruts and rocks, the most dangerous ones covered with pylons.

The ruts are left by cars and motorcycles that took short-cuts through Jasper Street, and by police patrol cars chasing suspects. Since the city put up an entrance barrier, however, practices can proceed without major distractions - unless graffiti-in-the-round counts as major.

None of this fazes Murphy. He has taught at Jules Mastbaum Technical School in Kensington for 20 years, has lived nearby all his life. He knew Franklin Playground as "the Old Cemo" and he exhorts Mastbaum's football players to take the field with pride.

The Panthers will do just that for today's 2 p.m. Public League title game against heavily favored Washington, the team Mastbaum upset two years ago for its first football championship.

In 1983, Murphy took over a team that hadn't won in 54 divisional games and had just 21 football players. Now, it has more players in the program than uniforms and a four-year streak of playoff appearances.

No one gives Mastbaum much of a chance against Washington, the league powerhouse. But no one did two years ago, when the Panthers posted a 28-26 win over Washington in the title game.

That win helped prove something John Murphy discovered almost 20 years before. Although he grew up next door in Port Richmond, Murphy attended prep school outside town and used to chide his own mother for having gone to Mastbaum. Then, after college, he went there to teach English.

"The kids opened my eyes, and they still do," Murphy said. "They certainly aren't Pollyannas, but the low-class image of the kids here is really inaccurate. The kids who play football are really good kids. I tell them every day that it takes someone special to play football. They believe and we believe."

Murphy was a "hanger-on" scout with coach Ralph Ricapito's Public League runner-up teams in 1972 and 1975, and eventually became an assistant coach. When he got the nod for head coach in 1983, he knew what he wanted: team values like those that Frankford coaches Al Angelo and Ron Howley used to win nine of the first 16 league playoff titles.

"Frankford was the ideal for everybody," Murphy said. "They never had big, mammoth kids. They had kids who worked their tails off and got the job done. We tried to bring the same work ethic to Mastbaum."

Progress came slowly. The Panthers had gone 0-52-2 in divisional play since 1977. Murphy started out carrying just 21 kids and was 3-25 after three seasons. He had "monstrous migraines routinely," still his inherent buoyancy for the task remained. The wins weren't coming yet, but the attitude was.

The turning point was 1987, when the Panthers went 4-4-1. The team leader was Abdullah Sams, a product of the Cambridge Plaza housing projects who is now set to graduate from West Chester University. That team spurred more kids to try out, and in 1989, Mastbaum upset Martin Luther King on the last day of the regular season to make its first playoff appearance since 1975. Murphy cried that day during a fourth-quarter timeout huddle.

The next year, senior Marc Baxter was the best quarterback the league had seen all decade. Tailback Barry Williams would eventually break league records set by Blair Thomas. Receiver Uhuru Hamiter rounded out a versatile offense designed by Ricapito, who was now back as Murphy's assistant.

Talk about pluck. On championship day, the Panthers lost their 20-0 lead to Washington in 11 minutes, but came right back to score a tying touchdown and pass for the winning two points. Jules Mastbaum Technical School, which managed nine winning seasons the previous 43 years, had won its first Public League football title.

Today at Northeast High School field, the Panthers will try it again.

"The thing that's happening now is the older guys are teaching the younger guys how to be winners," Murphy said.

The seniors have one more practice at the old cemetery, the place they call The Country Club, the muddied lot where Murphy used to play in pickup games as a teenager. These players, too, have heard their school put down, but Murphy insists they take the field with pride.

"These kids don't allow for any environmental disadvantage, because they don't know any better," Murphy said as he walked past the Franklin Playground's swingless swing sets and the empty pool where he was the first lifeguard years before. "This place is our advantage. This is what makes us tougher."

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