E:60: How a football coach saved a program and lost his opponents

THE COACH’S NAME is Biff Poggi. He made a generational fortune, almost by accident, as an investment fund manager. He has his own jet, a conga line of business investments and a sprawling estate in one of Baltimore’s most lovely suburbs. Ask who’s having a better financial year, him or his former boss, Jim Harbaugh (who earned a reported $7 million last year), and the 57-year-old Poggi will laugh and respond without hesitation, “Me, of course.”

Poggi doesn’t have to work another day in his life. He doesn’t have to coach. And he certainly doesn’t have to coach at St. Frances Academy, a dilapidated oasis of hope surrounded by the desolation and despair of East Baltimore.

“No human being I have ever heard of has escaped death,” he says. “We’re all going to the same place. And at some time, all of us are going to have ask ourselves the question: ‘What difference did we make for the least of them?’ … I decided I did not want to water-ski behind yachts. I wanted to do something else.”

Despite the daily, often hourly, soul-crushing obstacles his players face — poverty, neglect, violence and racism — Poggi is building a national football powerhouse, largely by spending more than $2.5 million of his own money.

But he says his bigger goal is to provide a foundation for the players who are part of his program.

“I am so sick of going to dinner parties and enduring the chin-wagging from people who say, ‘Oh, my god, what’s happening in our country? Why are the jails full of African-American men? They don’t value what we value.’ … Stop. I’m not listening to that nonsense anymore,” Poggi says.

“I see St. Frances as a drop of dye in the bucket of Baltimore, and it’s going to spread, and we’re going to do it one kid at a time, one year at a time, one team at a time. We’re going to level the playing field. We’re going to send them to college, they’re going to get their degrees and then they’re going to come back and make a difference.”

Poggi calls St. Frances “Baltimore’s team — I mean, real Baltimore.” The Panthers have no home stadium; they play in a public park. They have no practice field. No blocking sleds. When they run in the streets of East Baltimore, it isn’t uncommon for row house residents to come out and cheer.

Despite where they come from, many of Poggi’s players are finding hope. Nineteen starters from 2017 received college scholarships to such programs as Alabama, Maryland, Mississippi State, West Virginia, Indiana, Duke, Georgetown and at least one school in the Ivy League. The scholarship total is only slightly less than the 26 St. Frances players on the 2017 team who say they’ve lost immediate and extended family members to Baltimore’s violence. Poggi mourns when they mourn. He lives his life through their lives. Together they finished the 2017 season with a 13-0 record, with a No. 4 national ranking in the USA Today poll and outscored their Maryland Interscholastic Athletic Association conference opponents 342-50.

That’s nice, says Poggi, but at the moment he’s trying to help a player whose mother has resorted to breaking the law to support herself. And, oh, by the way, he and his coaching staff are scrambling to assemble a 2018 schedule after most of his MIAA opponents announced they will forfeit this season’s games against St. Frances rather than play the Panthers.

They cited issues of player safety, saying Poggi has assembled an all-star team of transfer players from as far away as Florida, a team of college-caliber athletes. Their success has been deemed unhealthy, even unfair. His program, say the most outraged of the critics, is simply too good.

Meanwhile, St. Frances supporters hear excuses and racially coded language, and they wonder why there were no such objections when the Panthers not so long ago were getting crushed by the same schools boycotting them now.

FRANCIS XAVIER POGGI was born in 1959 and essentially raised in Baltimore’s Little Italy, the product of an Italian-Greek family that struggled to pay its monthly bills. The Poggi children were taught to share what little they had with those who were less fortunate. Poggi’s paternal grandfather was long known for feeding and caring for the orphans who lived up the street at St. Leo’s. Poggi’s dad, a pharmacist who made, at best, $7,000 a year, often did the same.

Poggi’s size and athleticism caught the attention of coaches at Baltimore’s prestigious Gilman School, but it was the Gilman headmaster who became his financial benefactor and paid for his tuition. Gilman was — and is — a fine school, with a long history of academic excellence and iconic headmasters. But more than a few of its students have come from financially successful families, some whose names are familiar in the Baltimore community. Poggi’s father didn’t even have his name on the side of a mailbox. And Poggi himself had a history of academic indifference and fondness for a good fistfight. He was kicked out of several different schools before arriving at Gilman. Poggi survived Gilman. Or perhaps Gilman survived Poggi.

Pitt coach Jackie Sherrill signed Poggi to a football scholarship, and he became an offensive tackle on a 1979 team that included Dan Marino, Mark May, Russ Grimm, Jimbo Covert and Hugh Green. He later transferred to Duke. The NFL was an outside possibility, but he didn’t pursue it. Instead, he pursued coaching. Poggi was an assistant at Brown, The Citadel and then at Temple, with NFL-coach-to-be Bruce Arians. Poggi’s coaching arrow was pointed up when he learned that his mother had been diagnosed with cancer. He returned to Baltimore, where he became a volunteer coach at Gilman.

And then one day, he began thumbing through a Wall Street Journal. Something about those numbers fascinated him. His wife’s father, a successful businessman who was none too sure about the career prospects of his oversized son-in-law, pulled him aside one day in 1986.

“You’re not going to be a football coach, are you?” he said.

“I am,” said Poggi. “It’s all I know.”

His father-in-law saw Poggi trying to make sense of those financial pages and spent hours explaining the nuances of the stock market. Poggi, who had never recorded a grade higher than a C in almost any subject, especially math, became mesmerized by that world. Those charts, once a bundle of acronyms and fractions, began to make sense. Exchange-traded portfolios. Treasury yield curves. Commodities. Global government bonds. Futures contracts. Derivatives. Poggi learned to speak the language of Wall Street.

He was spotted a small investment stake by his father-in-law. And he made money. A friend of his father-in-law became a client. A second client turned into a small stream of those who had heard about the former offensive lineman and his gift for turning a profit. In that first year or so, he grew his fund from a few thousand dollars into six figures.

A curiosity became a 30-plus-year investment fund career. By the time Poggi quit managing those funds full-time, the value had grown to hundreds of millions of dollars. His investments now range from energy distribution to logistics, real estate and biotech. Poggi’s financial success allowed him to pursue his bucket list, and coaching is what mattered most to him.

He eventually became Gilman’s head coach, and his 19-year career there included 13 conference championships. He became the winningest coach in school history. All three of his sons played for him.

His success — and his reputation as a player’s coach — brought job offers from Maryland, as well as from Harbaugh and Michigan. Poggi chose Michigan in 2016, partly because his son Henry was a fullback there.

But as early as 2008, long before he left Gilman, Poggi wrote a $60,000 check to St. Frances to underwrite a football program in its infancy. His contributions to the school became so frequent that one of his Gilman assistants half-jokingly warned him not to help an opponent too much.

ST. FRANCES WAS founded in 1828, and in 1829, the four nuns who comprised the Oblate Sisters of Providence, led by Mother Mary Lange, became the first congregation of women of African ancestry in the United States to serve primarily children of color. The school is more than a decade older than the oldest historically black college in America. It was first established to teach the children of slaves how to read the Bible. Mother Mary’s first class numbered five students.

St. Frances was located in a poor neighborhood to serve the poor, and it has stayed true to that ideal. Throughout its history, from when the Confederate army was just 40 miles away during the Civil War to just two years ago when the Baltimore riots raged less than five miles away, St. Frances Academy has stayed put. School principal Curtis Turner says it is a neighborhood “protected by God.” A wall surrounds the “campus,” but its iron gates are never locked.

Nearly 92 percent of St. Frances’ 180 students are African-American. Nearly 80 percent live at or below the poverty level. More than half attend for free. Another 20 percent pay considerably less than the full $9,000 annual tuition. Poggi underwrites the tuition of 45 St. Frances players, as well supplements the salaries of seven full-time teachers, pays for SAT prep classes and makes possible the hiring of an academic support coordinator.

St. Frances is mostly surrounded by abandoned and burned-out row houses. Drug dealers use some of the houses as distribution centers. Broken beer bottles line the street where the football team runs sprints for winter and spring conditioning. Discarded plastic syringe covers dot the sidewalk. Bullet holes have pierced the stained-glass windows of the 100-year-old chapel. In 2017, St. Frances students found a corpse slumped on the ground next to a school bus just outside the back entrance. And not long ago, students were jarred by the sound of gunshots about a block away. Another murder.

“It’s a neighborhood where we’re the only beacon of hope,” says Turner. “When I’m watching the news and hear of another murder in Baltimore … we wonder here if one of our students has been affected. Is it a kid’s parent? Brother? Cousin?”

Poggi was once getting ready to drive out of the school parking lot when a player knocked on his window and asked if he could talk. The player had just found out that a family member had been shot dead. It was the fifth time a male member of his family had been killed.

“If I didn’t have St. Frances, I honestly don’t know where I’d be.” St. Frances wide receiver Alvontray Foster

Tears flowed down the player’s face. And yet, he made no sound as he cried. “Do you know how hard that is to do: to be that emotional but unable to give any more?” Poggi asks.

During a 2017 team dinner, a player received a phone call. It was a friend telling him his cousin, just a child, had been shot. According to Poggi, there are students at St. Frances who are classified as orphans by the state of Maryland. Their parents are incarcerated or have disappeared or simply don’t care anymore.

Wide receiver Alvontray Foster started taking care of his brother and two sisters when he was 12. He missed weeks and months of school at a time. He was a child of the East Baltimore streets — and all that came with that. He slept on floors. He went hungry. “I missed a lot of my childhood,” he says. His relationship with his dad? “Complicated.” His mom? Overwhelmed by the weight of her life. At times, they were homeless.

“If I didn’t have St. Frances, I honestly don’t know where I’d be,” he says.

Across the street from St. Frances is the most impressive structure in the neighborhood: the towering, gray, granite prison, opened in 1811 and known for its Gothic architecture, its pyramid-style white roof and, at one point in its history, its execution chamber. In a previous life it was the Maryland Penitentiary, but it now operates as the Metropolitan Transition Center for inmates. The only other capital construction in the St. Frances neighborhood in recent years has been an adjoining correctional facility.

During a 2017 September practice at a local field, Poggi heard what sounded like firecrackers. He turned around and his entire team was face-down on the ground.

“What the hell was that?” Poggi said.

And then he got it: gunfire.

“What is so heartbreaking is that these kids — even though they’re kids in big bodies — are living lives of trauma, and it is very deep,” Poggi says. “There’s a lot of post-traumatic stress going on in their lives.”

Against that backdrop, the mission of St. Frances and its football team is to provide a possible escape, a sliver of hope. The numbers indicate it is succeeding.

Consider the average sixth-grade reading level of first-year St. Frances students. According to Turner, by their third year, students are usually reading at a 12th-grade level. The school has nearly a 100 percent graduation rate, and more than 95 percent of the graduates go on to college, with 83 percent of them earning at least a bachelor’s degree. Seventy-five percent of those students are the first in their families to attend college.

“Our kids come in here with burdens … but they always seem to walk out with hope,” Turner says.

OF THE 180 St. Frances students, 90 are members of the football team. Each year, St. Frances offers one no-cut varsity sport, and Poggi insists that it be football.

The football program was founded in 2008 (and funded by Poggi’s initial $60,000 contribution) because of a growing concern over what St. Frances officials saw when classes were dismissed each day at 3 p.m. Drug dealers and gang members had begun to wait outside the walls. They were there to sell, to recruit, to offer their own form of hope.

As the program grew, the number of drug dealers waiting outside St. Frances decreased. And around the neighborhood, there became something of an unwritten code among gang members: Leave the St. Frances players alone.

In 2010, when an economic downturn threatened to close the school entirely, Poggi wrote another check and the crisis was averted. He was still at Gilman at the time. He saved St. Frances on a Tuesday, beat them on a Friday.

“He made all the difference between us opening or not,” Turner says.

“I decided I wanted to put my time, my money, my resources into these kids.” Biff Poggi

Soon, St. Frances will unveil a new locker room; the players will no longer have to change in the school bathrooms. It was paid for by Poggi. The planned training room? Poggi. The planned weight room? Poggi. The new football equipment? Poggi. Messay Hailemariam was there the first day of practice in 2016. Hailemariam had served as St. Frances’ head coach in 2015 and then transitioned to assistant coach when a new staff was hired. Waiting for the team that day were boxes of football shorts and matching workout shirts, a surprise gift from Poggi. Hailemariam was overwhelmed.

Poggi coaches St. Frances for free. He rents two townhouses for players who have nowhere else to go. When he discovered that several of his players were diagnosed as clinically malnourished, he arranged for daily meals. And on occasion, he helps pay the college tuition of players who didn’t receive a football scholarship.

“I decided I wanted to put my time, my money, my resources into these kids,” Poggi says. “And if you don’t like it, then tough s—.”

Without Poggi, says Turner, there wouldn’t be a St. Frances football team. But with Poggi, the Panthers have been unbeatable. And that’s part of the problem.

YOU SHOULD SEE Poggi during a game. Three days of stubble covers his face. His crewcut is in full Parris Island mode. His mood caroms from one emotion to another.

Before kickoff for their October 2017 game against Archbishop Spalding High School, he gushes about a text he received from one of his defensive linemen. The lineman simply said, “Thank you for being there for me.” He gets misty as he re-reads the text. The Panthers have arrived in their school uniforms — black slacks, monogrammed SFA white shirt, tie — and then change into their black-and-gold football uniforms.

In his final pregame huddle, Poggi tells the Panthers to be prepared for a bad call from the refs; his game analytics show that his team is disproportionately penalized. (Earlier in the 2017 season, a St. Francis assistant during a pregame prayer with the coaches asks God to ensure that the referees won’t unfairly penalize the Panthers.) And if an opposing player tries to bait them with a racial insult, something the Panthers say happens regularly, Poggi instructs them to simply say, “God bless you.”

St. Frances runs a version of Navy’s triple-option offense with devastating precision. A 7-6 Panthers deficit midway through the second quarter becomes a 28-7 Panthers lead by the end of the third quarter and 42-7 by the end of the game. The stars of the game include one player who was homeless until he moved into the St. Frances dorm.

“This is a very special team,” Poggi tells the Panthers after the win. And then, turning to a player who was injured during the game: “Let’s make sure we love this kid up. You are the greatest group of kids. I love you guys.”

The battles wear on Poggi. He has heart issues: atrial fibrillation. He often sleeps until 10 a.m. so his body can recharge. Is he worried about his health? Sort of. But he says he has a greater purpose, and a greater belief.

“If you said, ‘You can have another 50 years of perfect everything, or you can coach these guys for another 25 years,’ there’s no doubt what I would do,” Poggi says. “I’m coaching these guys. I love these guys.”

“I believe God’s been working on me for 50 years to be the coach at St. Frances — and it took every bit of 50 to do it.” Poggi is connected to two worlds: a world of affluence, a world of desperation. St. Frances is the middle ground. Football is the escape, and an opportunity.

“Football is a complete meritocracy,” he says. “It doesn’t care where you come from. It doesn’t care what you look like. It doesn’t care whether you are struggling in school or struggling at home or struggling in life. It becomes a sanctuary, so when you enter the confines of the football field, you enter a beautiful place. There’s a lot going on in these kids’ lives, most of it not good. Once inside that rectangle, there’s a chance for them to put everything aside. It becomes their safe place.”

ON NOV. 19, 2017, St. Frances won its second consecutive league championship, 44-7 over Poggi’s former team, Gilman. It will be the Panthers’ last time to raise the MIAA trophy.

By January 2018, MIAA member Loyola Blakefield, which lost to St. Frances 65-0, announced it was temporarily withdrawing its football program from the league. It cited a disparity in talent level.

In early May, rumors of a St. Francis backlash within the MIAA began bubbling to the surface. On May 29, Mount Saint Joseph High School announced it wouldn’t play the Panthers in 2018 because of player-safety concerns, as well as St. Frances’ player-transfer policies. Calvert Hall College High School and McDonogh School followed with their own announcements, again citing player safety. Gilman was the last league opponent to say it wouldn’t play St. Frances in 2018. No definitive reason was given for its decision.

“I didn’t believe it at first,” says Poggi. “Then when I found out that it was true, I was really, really disappointed, and I was angry. I said to my coaches, ‘We might have to disband our program.'”

Poggi’s anger, and that of his assistants and the St. Frances administration, was multilayered. Why, they asked, was there no discussion of player-safety concerns when the St. Frances program was routinely beaten by its MIAA rivals in previous years? As recently as 2015, the Panthers had a winless conference record.

Why was there no backlash when Poggi’s Gilman teams were dominating the MIAA? Why did the MIAA members wait so long to announce their decision, thus, creating a scheduling nightmare? Why, Turner asks, was he never part of those discussions?

“The most painful answer is that we’ve always been treated as the unwanted stepchild of the league,” Turner says. “And for me to not even get one courtesy call from any one of my colleagues prior to it makes us suspicious that it’s something deeper. … The something deeper is that there is a rift in Baltimore. It’s socioeconomic. It’s racial. It’s cultural.”

Asked if there is a racial issue in the league, Turner says, “I have seen enough evidence to suggest that there is.”

E:60 made multiple interview requests to MIAA executive director Lee Dove, as well as to each of the other six MIAA schools in St. Frances’ conference. With the exception of Gilman School co-athletic director Lori Bristow, those requests were either declined or ignored.

E:60 also requested from the MIAA any medical data or research that would support its members’ claims that playing St. Frances created a greater safety risk for players. There was no response to those requests.

Bristow, an athletic trainer for 32 years, said three Gilman players suffered concussions in a 50-0 loss to St. Frances last October.

“That’s what shook people up at Gilman School,” she says. “When it came to that championship game, we actually had to convince some parents to allow their kids to play.”

Asked if anyone had proven that playing St. Frances presented a health risk, Bristow says, “I don’t think you can prove that.”

“They have created an all-star team, a lot of transfers. That’s the difference.” Gilman School co-athletic director Lori Bristow

Bristow, who once worked with Poggi at Gilman and admires his efforts at St. Frances, says the real issue is the Panthers’ willingness to recruit junior and senior transfers.

“It is player safety because you have so many college-ready players that have come in and are stepping in and playing,” says Bristow, who acknowledged that Gilman also accepts junior transfers but not seniors.

Dr. Kaye Wise Whitehead, a professor of communication and African and African-American studies at Loyola University Maryland and the host of a Baltimore-area radio talk show, has a different interpretation.

“I honestly believe that if St. Frances … didn’t win a championship, didn’t cause any waves, didn’t finish No. 1, I don’t think we would be having this discussion,” Wise Whitehead says. “I think ‘player safety’ is probably a code for the issue that nobody wants to talk about. … So we don’t say ‘racism.’ We say ‘player safety.’ We say ‘national roster.’ We say, ‘We can’t compete against them.’ We say, ‘They’re just too big.’ … We say all these things instead of saying what it really is.”

Defensive end Eyabi Anoma, the No. 4-ranked recruit in the country who’s now a freshman at Alabama, said players have heard it all on the field.

“We’re thugs. We’re gang members. Our SAT scores are too low,” he says. “We’re going to fail in college, We’re not going to be eligible for college. And the N-word. The N-word is every game.”

Bristow says the controversy “has nothing to do with race, nothing at all.”

“They have cherry-picked many very good athletes that are at other locations, other private schools,” she says. “They have created an all-star team, a lot of transfers. That’s the difference.”

According to St. Frances officials, its varsity team in 2016 accepted 23 transfer players, five from out of state. In 2017, there were 15 transfer, five from out of state. Entering the 2018 season, there are nine transfers, three from out of state. Turner added that the transfers were approved by the MIAA.

POGGI AND HIS staff have since cobbled together a nine-game schedule that includes three teams from Canada. They are a team without a league, but not without a cause.

Not long ago, Poggi found himself waiting at a red light near the St. Frances campus. A handful of kids, squeegees and water buckets in hand, sprinted from the street corner to Poggi’s black SUV. Poggi handed them a $20.

“Hey, you ever heard of St. Frances?” Poggi said to the children, no older than 10.

One of the children’s eyes widened.

“It’s my dream school,” said the kid.

Poggi smiles as he tells the story.

“And I thought, ‘Wow, he’s dreaming. And he’s dreaming about school.’ How awesome is that?”

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