The payoff was Saturday.
The work began long ago.
As the Abraham Lincoln High School football team was celebrating its first Public League championship since 1979 on Saturday after knocking off Northeast in the Class 6A title game, the players were celebrating a season of hard work. They were celebrating the fruits of their labor that started long before training camp. It started in practices, seven on sevens and in the weight room.
But for the coaches, it all goes back to Gene Kelly.
Kelly coached the Railsplitters from 2002 to 2009. Two of his players were Joe DiGrazio and Hakeem Cooper, both ferocious middle linebackers who loved football.
More than that, they both loved Lincoln.
And after both went away to college, both returned.
DiGrazio, a 2005 graduate, came back as an assistant coach in 2010 after playing college football. Cooper, who graduated just before DiGrazio returned in 2010, joined the staff in 2015, and after serving as an assistant for four years, took over as head coach.
Together, along with Khalil “Duke” Walker, a 2013 graduate who came back a few years ago, they returned home because there’s nowhere they’d rather be.
Even when Lincoln wasn’t an elite program.
“When I was there as a player, only two teams from our division made the playoffs, and our division was Northeast, Frankford, Washington and Olney,” DiGrazio said. “So even though we had some really good teams with some good players, unfortunately we never made the playoffs. It was by geography and Frankford and Washington were two of the best. Northeast didn’t even make it a lot.
“But we loved it, and that started with Coach Kelly. He was a mentor to both Hak and myself. I really think he laid the foundation for coach Hakeem Cooper and myself. At one time he was both of our mentors, he was my head coach and Hak’s. He’s a big reason why we are who we are. He taught us how to be responsible young men, he was a huge part of that.”
That’s why Kelly had arguably the biggest smile after the Railsplitters defeated Northeast 29-14 on Saturday at Southern. Lincoln will now face St. Joe’s Prep in the District 12 championship game.
It ended a great run for Northeast, but also showed how far this Vikings team has come under first-year coach Ryan Nase. Lincoln blew out the Vikings during the regular season, but the championship game was a different story.
Still, Lincoln, once the weak link of the four Northeast football schools, is the best big school football program in the Public League this year.
The payoff has finally come after years of hard work.
“Our No. 1 thing at Lincoln is the culture and the family,” said DiGrazio, who works in the special education department at the school. “That’s what’s changed. We’re not just a team, we’re a program and building and getting better. Hak’s big philosophy is, ‘We’re all we got, we’re all we need.’ If you come here, if you’re a waterboy, a manager, a football player, you’re family.
“Our biggest thing is first getting you into college if you want to go to college, and we’ve done great with that, kids playing at the next level. And we love seeing them become successful young men, start a family and live life the right way.”
All those hours of helping this team turn the corner, go from a lesser light to a contender to a championship, were worth it. But, boy, those hours were long.
“Losing is never fun,” DiGrazio said. “Our No. 1 goal is these young men becoming successful young men. Winning always takes a back seat to that. But winning feels good. We’ve won a lot of big games, we had our first playoff win since 1988 with Coach (Ed) McGettigan, and now our first championship since 1979, and one more thing on the list. One more thing we have to check off this list to make history.”
This championship is a result of many years of hard work from the players and coaches, but DiGrazio was quick to point out that without the players on this year’s squad, that streak wouldn’t be over.
“This team is pretty special,” DiGrazio said. “I don’t think it’s the most talented team we’ve had. But they’re so focused. They’re so good about one-game-at-a-time mentality. It’s a really good group.
“This year hasn’t been easy, we had an incredibly tough season, we played some very good teams. These guys love to compete. They really earned this. This wasn’t just for the players, it was great for them, but it was for the players, the school and the alumni. Everyone who has been so supportive.”
DiGrazio returned to Lincoln because that’s where he wanted to win. The same, he said, with Cooper. But since they got back home, they’ve enjoyed bonding with their players. They’ve enjoyed watching the program grow. They’ve also enjoyed seeing so many improvements at the school.
“Lincoln, I think, has the best facilities around,” DiGrazio said. “Our football field, an all-weather track, a turf field. Our baseball field, it’s one of the best in the city. And then our gym hosts state playoff games. We have five locker rooms, beautiful locker rooms, and we have a pool. The facilities are incredible.”
And as the school made improvements, so did the Railsplitters.
Instead of being idle from early November, waiting around to play Judge, Lincoln will be busy this weekend. And it’s a game the school is very excited about.
“When I played here and when Hak played here, we mostly played Public League teams, that’s why the Judge game was so important, it was our only chance at seeing teams outside the league,” DiGrazio said. “This year we went out and played other teams, and our guys loved that. They love to compete.
“This weekend, Lincoln is playing St. Joe’s Prep, a top 10 team in the nation, in a city championship? How cool is that?”
It’s definitely something Coach Kelly would be proud of.