Kensington football story kicks off career in documentaries

Matthew Albasi, JOUR ’13, and journalism senior Max Pulcini on the Kensington Tigers’ field. (Photo by Steven Reitz)

It was in the shadow of the el, next to the towering wall that reads “Kensington Football” that Max Pulcini knew he had found the story of his young career.

The senior journalism major at Temple University’s School of Media and Communication was on assignment last fall for the Spirit of the River Wards newspaper. He was to do a preview of the upcoming season for the Kensington Tigers, a team made up of kids from various high schools in and around one of the city’s roughest neighborhoods.

But what he thought was going to be a 15-minute interview and a 500-word story has grown into so much more.

“Having just moved [to nearby Fishtown] in August and not having gone into Kensington during my time living on campus, I had assumed that Kensington football was a stable, grounded program that had been around for awhile. You think that Kensington is one of the most famous neighborhoods, for better or for worse, so I figured they would have had a public league team,” he said.

The story he learned over the next two-and-a-half hours from Coach Ellwood Erb was one of hope, of dedication, of passion.

Erb and his father hand-painted the six-foot letters on the “Kensington Football” wall themselves, camping out overnight to ensure no one stole their scaffolding. They were covering graffiti that prominently read, “Smoke dust. Kill cops.”

In the eight months that followed that first interview, Pulcini teamed up with Matthew Albasi, JOUR ’13, to create a feature-length documentary called “Rise of the Tigers,” with production support from Fox School of Business student Steven Reitz and Tyler School of Art student Jess Ruggierio. The documentary will have a “sneak peak” showing June 8 at the Wells Fargo Center before the Philadelphia Soul game. From there, Pulcini and Albasi will be submitting it to film festivals throughout North America.

The documentary follows Erb and his team through the 2012 season – its second year in existence. The story hits on life in Kensington, the turmoil of the Philadelphia School District, the players’ relationships with their families and the aspirations of the seniors on the team.

“This is not a story about football,” Pulcini said. “It is a story about human beings coming together in one of the most notorious neighborhoods in Philadelphia.”

Working the story
In order to achieve the depth they wanted in their interviews, they knew that had to build a level of trust with the students and the school staff. They did so, “just by being there and being ourselves,” Albasi said.

But even when they thought everyone was on board, they still ran into some trust issues.

Albasi was gathering some final footage of students leaving Kensington CAPA at the end of the day when a police patrol car slowly drove past and parked nearby.

Albasi nodded and waved, but knew, “he’s totally here for me.”

He had told the principal, Coach Erb and school security that we would be filming that afternoon, “but I didn’t think about the parents that were sitting out front.”

Albasi produced a business card and explained the documentary to the officers. He was soon surrounded by school officials who ensured he was supposed to be filming. He knows the cops were just doing their job — “we just got a call saying some weird guy is out front taking pictures of the kids, so we had to swing by,” they explained.

Both he and Pulcini said the change in their reception in the neighborhood was tangible as the months went on.

“Of course it’s intimidating at first. Kensington Ave. is kind of a scary place. It’s like a giant centipede over the street. It’s not sunshine and cobblestone at all,” Pulcini said. “The media paints Kensington as this pretty awful place. But it’s full of compassionate people and compassionate children.”

What’s next?
As they worked on their first documentary, the Temple duo created their own company, Downhill Productions. The heart of its mission will be documentary work, but in order to financially support their journalistic endeavors, they have also started to film more commercial fare like weddings and music videos. It was a welcome revelation for the two journalists who couldn’t find steady paid work.

“We can keep doing this,” Pulcini said. “We can use these skills that we learned in journalism school that are supposed to be applied toward journalism, but they’re also valuable, marketable skills in different areas.”

Watch the trailer for “Rise of the Tigers” here:

Read the story of the Tigers at Philadelphia Neighborhoods.

 Media contact:
Jeff Cronin, Assistant Director of Communications