The Southern football program has a long-standing history that includes undefeated seasons, Public League and city championships and Thanksgiving Day rivalries against St. John Neumann High.
But those championship seasons are distant memories. The Rams haven’t won a Public League title since 1965 and, these days, are just trying to stay alive. The local squad hit an all-time low last season when it went 0-8 and scored 28 points in all games combined.
When coach Bill Edger had just 12 players show up for a November practice, school officials were forced to call an early halt to the season, canceling the Neumann-Southern football game for the first time since its inception in 1934.
Last Thursday, 15 Southern football players returned to the field at 12th and Bigler with the hopes of reviving the struggling program. Some players went as far as to predict their team could reach the Public League championship game.
The reality is the Rams have a long way to go.
For starters, the team is in desperate need of some big and bulky linemen to block and provide pass protection. Senior wide receiver Darrell Horton knows the importance of those players after spending the last three seasons at Neumann, which has some of the Catholic League’s biggest linemen.
"It’s very hard to win without linemen because the offense revolves around them," he said while taking a break from Southern’s receiving drill.
Horton, like many of his teammates, has volunteered to help his coach recruit the needed players when school starts today.
"I am just going to tell them if they don’t have anything to do after school, they could be out here practicing," he said.
As the athletic director at Audenried, Edger doesn’t have much of a chance to personally recruit athletes. However, he sent out 40 letters to potential players and posted signs throughout South Philly High announcing the team’s openings.
Once he gets the players to commit to football, the tough part is getting them to show up every day for practice. The coach recalled several occasions last season when 20 or fewer boys came out, making it impossible to do 11-on-11 drills.
"We didn’t get enough kids into practicing, which led to our downfall," he said.
Senior linebacker Justin Bigby doesn’t want to see that happen in his final season of football. The player, who is hoping to earn All-Public honors, said he plans to become more of a role model this year, as he wants Southern to win all four of its division games.
"We have to try to be serious," he said. "When it got to game time [last season], nobody was ready to play. I know people got jobs, but at least come to practice a couple times a week instead of just showing up for games."
Practice will be especially crucial for junior Munir Nock, who is replacing Leon Pettyjohn as the starting quarterback. The Rams are learning a simpler formation to utilize the players they have.
"Practice is important because we are learning a new offense and defense," Nock said. "Everybody needs to show up every day."
Since Southern is the only Public League school without a junior-varsity program, freshmen and sophomores will compete for varsity playing time.
Edger knows his team still faces many obstacles, but rallied his players last week as they worked on agility drills and speed, with some passing and receiving drills mixed in.
"I am trying to keep things positive and reinforce it as much as I can," he said.
The Rams’ schedule is somewhat easier this season. The team will not face Northeast Philly teams Washington, Frankford and Lincoln. The Rams played all three squads last season and lost by a combined score of 127-8. Southern’s only touchdown came against Frankford.
The Rams haven’t made the Public League playoffs since the 1999 season, when they finished second in Division D. Edger took over the program the following year, but has struggled to maintain numbers. This year will help determine the team’s survival.
The varsity baseball program faced a similar crisis in 1996, when a shortage of players made it an expendable budget cut at the end of the season. The junior-varsity program was kept intact, and 14 boys came out for the team in the hopes of resurrecting the varsity program. The commitment paid off, as the Rams returned to Division C play in 1998. Today, the team still struggles to get consistent numbers, but manages to remain a playoff contender.
Ideally, Edger would like to have 30 players come out for football. Those who do will be part of a renewed effort, the coach promised. He will try to symbolize that push with new decals for the helmets to give his players an updated look.
"We need a change," Edger said. "I want them to feel better about themselves."
Winning would certainly help toward that end.
"It’s a mindset," said wide receiver Horton. "We have to believe we can achieve it. We have to take it one day at a time."