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Where is Biff Poggi Now? ‘The Cost of Winning’ Coach Isn’t Playing Football
Usually, these things end well.
When you call up sports-documentary heroes a year or so later—whether it’s Last Chance U’s bound-for-D1 guys, or the beef-and-make-good legends in The Last Dance—you expect the conversation to be generally positive. The adversity tends to happen, you know, in the documentary you just watched, so you’re expecting to hear about all the great things they’ve been up to, a feel-good epilogue for the fans at home.
Not this year. HBO’s The Cost of Winning just wrapped up the last of its two parts. The series follows St. Frances Academy’s high school football team—a Baltimore-based program that consistently ranks top 10 in the nation—during its 2019 season. For years, St. Frances had little resources (the team plays its games in a city park, still), until Biff Poggi, former University of Michigan coach, takes over as the school’s head coach, after years of fronting his own money (Poggi made a fortune as an investment fund manager) to support the program. Leading a squad that doesn’t flinch when it hears gunshots outside of practice, many of its players having lost more family and friends due to gun violence than you can count on your hand, St. Frances started winning games. Then, those games started showing up on ESPN. St. Frances started sending its players to Alabama.
People had a problem with it. Its competitors in Baltimore’s MIAA conference started dropping St. Frances from its schedule. Too good. Too dangerous. St. Frances’s supporters said the virtual banishment was thinly-veiled racism—the academy is a historically Black school in a conference largely full of white kids in Baltimore’s suburbs. The MIAA said that facing off against St. Frances is a safety risk. Cut to Poggi making his own schedule, shelling out hundreds of thousands of dollars each season to travel the country to play the nation’s best programs, even paying some of them to come to Baltimore.
In The Cost of Winning, we only glimpse what’s clearly an always-churning saga in Baltimore—the documentary only runs about two hours in total. It’s not nearly enough to fully capture Poggi’s players: Boys becoming men, perpetually at risk for malnourishment, long past accepting gun violence as a daily threat, many of them orphaned. Though, the series ends with some hope—most of the seniors earn college scholarships, headed to somewhere, anywhere, but Baltimore.
When I called Poggi, I expected to hear about 2020’s effect on his program: Masks at practice, players and their families suffering from the virus and its fallout, how the wake of George Floyd’s death woke so much of the nation up to what these young men have faced since birth. But, with high school football charging on—St. Frances’s national rivals are still running around on ESPN—I didn’t think I’d hear that St. Frances was spending Friday nights at home, no one to play, when Poggi feels like it needed football the most.
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ESQ: I couldn’t find too much info out there about what you’re doing this season—are you even able to have workouts?
Biff Poggi: We had done some 7-on-7 stuff but not as Saint Frances, so we’ve let kids join pick-up teams that are around 7-on-7. But the city of Baltimore is just a wreck. I mean the whole state has opened up. They’re playing football in the state of Maryland. And they’re playing it, they’re expecting kids. The old league we were in is playing. They played games on Saturday. But the city will not let any football be played in the city. And the only way they’ll let you play football is if you’re a private school. We hope, god willing, we’re gonna play a spring schedule with about five or six games. The kids are looking forward to that.
ESQ: The documentary focuses so much on how actually being on the football field and holding practices helps them—has that been a struggle to not have that for them this year?
BP: It really has been. So the problem with it is whenever something comes along that is unexpected, or a natural disaster, anything like that, it’s hard for everybody. Virtual learning is a wonderful concept, however, if you don’t have Wi-Fi in your home or you don’t have technology, it’s a harder idea. And so it’s been really hard for our kids. Now we’ve got the technology, they’re all hooked up, but you know, sometimes things don’t work. And so it’s been hard through that. It’s been really hard socially—and when I say social, I mean their living circumstances. We have like 45 guys living with us. So we can’t do that now because of the COVID rule. These kids, they’re like our children and we’re intimately involved in their lives. We just can’t do that now.
ESQ: I can’t imagine—because such a big part of the documentary is just this incredible support system that you built, right? The living, the nutrition, and I just can’t imagine how much COVID has thrown that out of flux.
BP: It really hurt us. It’s hurt the kids on—forget the football—it’s hurt on a very human visceral level. I’ll tell you something, we take attendance everyday, we track the grades every day and the participation every day, and it was rough in the beginning. They’ve picked it up. These kids are working for the light at the end of the tunnel and that’s kind of what they say. And it’s hard for them now.
ESQ: It’s heartbreaking to see what these guys go through—like Clowney saying one of his close friends died. I was talking to another football coach for a different story and he said a lot of these young men have PTSD. Is that what you’re seeing?
BP: Our kids suffer from—I don’t call it post-traumatic stress. I call it continuous-traumatic stress disorder. Because this doesn’t go away. It ends at some point. It keeps coming… What I hope is shown in the documentary is what I want to happen out of this. I believe people, if you get them alone and are able to talk to them, we’re a country full of compassionate and good people on every side. I believe that. I want people to see what happened in our country and the whole city. Because we’ve seen the violence and read about it. I want them to see that these kids lose every bet in America. Housing because they live in horrendous conditions, and nutrition because it’s a food desert. They lose an education at the Baltimore city school system. I want them to see that they lose in violence. Because I think people’s hearts will become tender and break about this. What we eventually want is people doing kind of what we’re doing. Get in there, open your hearts up, use your time, open your checkbooks up. And you don’t have to do something crazy—just hang out, because every kid that we see, that we send to college, is like a drop of dye in a bucket. It goes in and then before you know it—it’s one kid, it’s five kids, it’s 15 kids, it’s a hundred kids, and then that’s how you change a place.
ESQ: Could you talk a little bit about the chapel tradition we see in the documentary?
BP: I did that about 25 years ago when I first began as a head coach. The last chapel of the season is the seniors getting up and reading their eulogies from the perspective of whoever they choose—their wives, their children, whatever. The reason it’s such an interesting exercise is that too often in our lives—I know in my life, I wish years ago, I’m 60 years old now, I wish when I was 18 or 19 that somebody would’ve said, “Start thinking about how you want to be remembered so you can model your life.” And what happens if you listen to those, rarely [is it], “He was a great player.” Those guys talk about: “He was a good man, he was a good father, he was a person that would help other people, he gave up his time and his life.” It’s remarkable. When people think about how they want to be remembered, it’s not about their bank account, it’s not about their athletic glory, it’s not about how many degrees they have. At the very end, what really, really matters, all you really want to know is: Was I a person who helped other people? Will I be missed?
ESQ: A big point in the documentary is the controversy with the MIAA—the you’re too good thing, and a lot of people seeing that as racism. Does that controversy speak to any kind of a larger problem in high school sports, even outside of football?
BP: It’s easy to say it’s all about race. I think it’s partially about race. It’s easy to say it’s because I’m a controversial, polarizing figure, it’s partially because I’m a controversial, polarizing figure. It’s easy to say that people don’t like to lose in sports—everybody wants to win everything. What the answer is: It’s partially all of those things. But the real answer is it’s just fear. It’s fear of the difference between racial groups. It’s fear of people who seem to have the ability to do certain things. It’s either people gaining power and you losing. It’s a lack of understanding. And what we tell our kids is this: People will say terrible things about your coach. Some of it’s true, some of it’s not. People will say terrible things about you. We don’t think any of that’s true. But what you need to focus on is it doesn’t matter who is playing, because what we’re interested in is leveling the playing field… because colleges, fortunately, their alumni are very competitive. And you know what they want? They want winning football programs. So they’re willing to come down and strike up a chat with our kids to get to their school and help them win games. And once you’re there, you’re even with everybody else. And that’s the only thing that matters whether are they playing or not playing. As long as we play somebody we might be okay. The real problem was we thought at one point we were gonna have to cancel the program because we couldn’t get anybody to play us.
We had to fly to California. Then we had to pay teams to come to us. I wrote an email to the headmaster of Gilman [School] the other day. I was just pissed off. I said, “It cost us $300,000 to play on schedule last year. Here we are in the middle of COVID; it was after the George Floyd situation. These schools writing letters and sending them to their alumni about how we’ve been part of a racist society and how much a difference we can do to help. You can play us in this bizarre season. Because for $300,000, think about what we can do. We can scholarship 30 more kids. We can hire six new teachers. We can up the laboratory. I mean, it’s significant.
ESQ: One of your coaches in the documentary says that high school football is the best level of football there is—do you believe in that?
BP: I do. I think it’s the purest in that the kids play because they love it. The coaches coach because they love it. People come to the games because they love it. It’s the purest form of the game. Nobody’s getting a paycheck, nobody’s brand is destroyed by a poor play. Nobody gets fired if a team doesn’t do well. Nobody gets cut or traded. So it’s really a group of people who are still in it because they love the game and they love being around all those people that love the game. You don’t get anything immediate monetarily or fame. Nobody knows anybody in high school football.
ESQ: Is there anything you wish I had asked you?
Faith plays a huge component in us being able to do what we do. I got a call yesterday from a mom. Her son doesn’t play on the football team. But she said—and I don’t know her, I don’t know her son—but I guess she called because she knows I care about all the kids at St. Frances. And she said, “I’m behind in tuition and I don’t want my son to be removed from school.” And I said, “OK, well talk to me about what’s going on.” She said, “I owe about $2,500…. My husband is supposed to be paying, but he stopped. I want to start paying, but I’ve been in the hospital because he beat me.” And my point of telling you that story, is when you get that story, or you get Clowney, or any of these guys, you have to have something bigger than yourself you can give those kids to go home to.
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