The sun gleamed over the tall, white wall looming next to the coarse and patchy field by the El stop at the corner of Front and Berks streets. It wasn’t long ago that the turf was a wasteland of litter and scrap metal—symbolic of the historically rough neighborhood that is Kensington. But the wall—shining with a fresh coat of pearly paint—now reads a different message: Kensington Football.
Now in its second year, the Kensington Tigers football team serves the Kensington multiplex of high schools and its population of 1,500 students, as well as Carroll High School in Port Richmond and other charter school students who live in the area. Founded by Fishtown native Ellwood Erb, the program’s primary goal is instill the ideals of academic achievement, personal responsibility and community pride into its players—a mantra that Coach Erb urges each of his players to take to heart.
Passionate about both football and his neighborhood, Erb came back to Fishtown after spending time in Maui operating an art business with his cousin. Realizing that he really wanted to be at home and working in the community he grew up in, Erb started at the Creative and Performing Arts high school as a teacher and has pushed for the creation of a football team since. Last year, Erb’s dream became reality, as Kensington successfully started a junior varsity team and compiled an impressive record of 8-1 in the District 12 Pubic League, including wins over Frankfort, Northeast and Central. But while creating a football team is one thing, establishing a football program is something entirely different.
“It’s my goal to teach these kids how to become men,” said Erb, his voice raspy from motivating kids during two-a-day practices under the hot summer’s sun. “It’s about being perfect in the classroom and gentlemen on the streets. We want to establish a program with the younger kids who will instill our mantra and apply it. We want to get community service activities going and get kids into college or trade schools.”
Erb has put in his own blood and sweat into the program—it was he and his father who painted the giant mural overlooking the field themselves, sleeping outside for four night to protect the scaffolding used to put the hand cut letters up. Only the white paint on the wall was rolled on while each giant varsity letter was done manually with small paintbrushes to ensure that every crack was filled.
Erb said he hopes that the wall is a beacon to the rest of the community, and something that every kid growing up in Kensington can look at as motivation to take pride in their neighborhood.
“This program is about more than just the kids involved today, it’s also about their younger brothers who will look at this wall and say, ‘I can’t wait to play Kensington football like my older brother did, and go to college or trade school like he did,’” said Erb.
One player, junior fullback and linebacker Matt Sanasac explained, “My little brother’s always asking me about what I did at practice, and when I tell him about it, you can just see his eyes light up.”
Erb also said he wants to break the stigma that comes with being a Kensington student and prove to the city that these young men are capable of great things when rallied together under the Kensington yellow and black.
“There was the belief out there that Kensington kids didn’t have the heart to play football, that once they got hit they wouldn’t get back on the field,” said Erb. “But there’s a certain pride in football that takes a kid who’s normally quiet in the classroom, puts him on the field, and makes him a leader. And then it clicks with them—they learn to be a leader in life.”
“When I was growing up, people told me I wasn’t going to be anything in life, and I honestly believed them,” said Markeith Spencer, an up-and-coming and speedy sophomore running back. “But coming out here [onto the football field] all day and working hard changed all of that. I just want to let everyone know that no matter how small you are, you can do anything.”
Progress can be seen both on the field and in the classroom, as the Kensington multiplex was also the only neighborhood high school in Philadelphia to make the U.S. Department of Education’s Adequate Yearly Progress in 2011, a rating system put in place under President George W. Bush’s No Child Left Behind Act that measures how public schools are performing academically.
“People don’t give our kids enough credit on how smart they are. They deserve a fair chance,” said Erb, his face glowing as he explains the schools commitment and pride to their academics. “We have lots of great and passionate teachers here whose main focus is the kids and helping them succeed,” he said.
Senior defensive end and tight end Melwin Santiago, one of the team’s senior leaders, has applied himself not on the field with his big hits and swagger, but also in the classroom and plans on earning a degree in business and management from Albright College and aspires to start his own business someday.
“My personal goals this year are to do well in school, graduate and make my parents proud,” said Santiago. “And go 9-0,” he added, a confident smile on his face as he set the lofty goal for an undefeated season.
Looking forward, the Kensington Tigers are working on creating a varsity team—something they hope to have by 2014. Along with a varsity squad, Coach Erb is also planning to have the current practice field leveled out in order to build a stadium, field house, locker room and weight room for his players. He also envisions a marching band, team managers, cheerleading squad and broadcast team in the program’s future to encompass all aspects and students of the Kensington multiplex of high schools. Erb proudly called this vision “Friday Night Lights Under the El.”
However, this overhaul needs the community’s support if it is to happen. Due to budget cuts in the school district, the Tigers are running a budget of zero dollars and rely completely on donations. Erb has established a not-for-profit for the team called Friends of Kensington Football Inc., which has its own bank account and accepts tax-exempt donations. Additionally, the team will also be raising money themselves through a variety of team-centered jobs, such as car washes and once-a-month community service activities.
“I won’t have my team out on the corner canning for money, my team’s going to work hard for their money,” said Erb.
As for this upcoming season, the Tigers kick off their second year of football against Frankfort Sept. 19, and as it was with last year, all of the team’s match ups will be away games. Players to look out for on the field this season include the team captains and veteran leaders, Santiago, Sanasac and quarterback Rafiq Johnson, as well as youngsters like Spencer and Antonio Sanchez.
Though they are working out for hours on rocky terrain, each of these kids sees football as a gift, especially Santiago, who was born and raised in Puerto Rico.
“When I moved here from Puerto Rico, the first sport I saw was football and I fell in love with it. Now that it’s at my high school and I can play it, it’s like a dream come true,” Santiago said.
The players also take great pride in playing for their coach who worked so hard to making this dream possible. “Just the fact our coach is willing to go out of his way for us, we have to show our own commitment and dedication to him, our team and our school,” said Santiago.
“I feel like I couldn’t be on a better football team. Football is about dedication and commitment, and who better to show you that then your coach,” said Sanasac.
While Coach Erb has been hammering his message of academic achievement, personal responsibility and community pride into his players, he also has a message to the rest of the community.
“We wont let you down,” said Erb. “You give us your support and time, and we won’t let you down. This is going to a program that the entire city can be proud of, not just the community. We’re going to win games and establish a program for a bigger picture. I don’t want it to be about me, this isn’t why I’m doing it. It’s about something that generations of Fishtowners and Kensingtowners will have forever.”