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Sweating for a spot

For senior Chris Long and the Dobbins Mustangs, the start of football season follows months of hard work.

This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.

The temperature has climbed above 90 degrees, and the Dobbins football team is gassed.

It’s the second day of preseason football practice, and head coach Lou Zambino has the Mustangs running sprints to improve their conditioning.

When “Zam” yells for a bear crawl, in which players must scamper halfway across the field on all fours before rising and breaking into a full sprint, several of the team’s massive linemen look ready to mutiny. Even star cornerback Joshua Bangura is bent over at the waist, trying to catch his breath.

But senior linebacker Chris Long, whose playing time for three years has been almost entirely limited to junior varsity and special teams, stands tall. Though not the fastest on the team, he finishes at the front of each of his sprints.

“I wanted to bend over and catch my air, but I didn’t,” Long explains later. When you are fighting for playing time, he says, “you can’t show anyone you’re weak.”

“He’s the hardest-working kid on the team,” says defensive coach John Sullivan, a history teacher at Dobbins who is in his 10th year coaching football.

“He’s never missed practice in three years. He’s intense, he’s dedicated. He hasn’t seen a lot of time on the field, but he never gives up. I’d love if we had eleven kids on each side of the ball with his heart and desire.”

Struggle to be a starter

But while Long has a big heart, at 5’7” and 170 pounds, he is undersized to play varsity linebacker. By comparison, Dobbins’ Derek Clark, whom Sullivan sees as the best linebacker in the city, is six feet tall and weighs 215 pounds. The offensive linemen that Long will have to take on will routinely outweigh him by 80 pounds or more.

“He’s been trying to win a starting spot for years,” says Sullivan. “We’re giving him every opportunity this year. But we’re not guaranteeing it. Sports can be cruel, and the best players will play.”

“I think Chris loves football more than he loves me,” says Long’s mother, Tracy Long, a corrections officer. “He lives, sleeps, eats, and poops football.”

Not that she is complaining. After overcoming her initial fears that her boy would get hurt, she has become a dedicated football mom, standing in the rain for practices, feeding kids from both teams after games, and providing constant encouragement to her son.

This summer, to help her son prepare for his last chance at a starting job, she drove him to Pittsburgh for a weekend camp led by Pitt coach Dave Wannstedt. She also let him sign up for Coach Al Golden’s camp at Temple University.

Her younger brother Floyd Coley, a 2001 graduate of Roxborough who played four years of high school football, also supports Long as his mentor and workout partner. This summer, they have focused on lifting weights and on drills to improve Long’s lateral movement and pass-catching – skills he will need if he is to earn a starting spot at linebacker.

And Long has maintained a vigorous summer workout schedule of his own, biking Kelly Drive to improve his stamina and taking advantage of downtime on his job as a lifeguard at an apartment complex in Roxborough to do water workouts.

For Long, the game is both a passion and a way to cope with the rest of his life. “When you lay out that ballcarrier, all the stress from the week just releases,” he explains.

Playing time

A few days before the season opener at Lincoln, however, Long still hasn’t nailed down a starting spot. Coach Sullivan remains concerned about his tendency to get swallowed up by larger blockers.

Against Lincoln, the coaches decide to start with a five-man defensive front. This means Long will not be a starter but should see some time at linebacker, as well as his regular special teams duties.

If Long is disappointed on gameday, he doesn’t show it. The players have voted him as one of the team captains for the game. Like everyone else, he is focused on avenging last year’s 7-6 loss to Lincoln, one of five defeats that Dobbins suffered either by one point or in overtime.

Long makes his presence felt on the opening kickoff, sprinting downfield to make the tackle.

He gets on the field for only a few plays during the rest of a sloppy first half, which ends with Dobbins leading 7-3.

During the second half, however, the defensive line starts looking depleted, and Dobbins struggles to hold its lead.

With about six minutes left, Lincoln gets the ball. Coach Sullivan decides to go with a four-man front with Long at linebacker.

He makes a couple of solid, if unspectacular plays, keeping Lincoln running backs from getting outside.

With four minutes left, Lincoln faces a 4th and 9 from the Dobbins 30-yard line. They decide to go for it.

Lincoln’s quarterback throws for the end zone, but cornerback Bangura anticipates the receiver’s route and intercepts the pass at the goal line.

Dobbins is able to run out the clock and hang on for the victory.

Walking off the field, Long remains the good soldier. “Whether I make a small contribution or a big contribution,” he says, “I feel good as long as we get the win.”

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