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Of the 305 public high schools in New York City, only 43 have football teams-and none of them are in Harlem. That is until Doug Ferguson, a former wide receiver for the Dallas Cowboys, organized the Harlem Hellfighters in 2003. But bas- ketball is king in Harlem, and the Hellfighters are a long way from Friday Night Lights. Filmmaker Jon Frankel follows the team through their third season as they look for park space to practice, forfeit games due to inadequate paperwork, and cope as players with poor academic records are cut. Audited by the Public School Athletic League, hounded by the Board of Education, and in danger of losing their NFL funding, the Harlem Hellfighters are under stress and Coach Ferguson under scrutiny. "They want you to quit," the hardheaded and enigmatic coach tells his team. Still, playing with the Hellfighters is the opportunity of a lifetime for Tahriek Crenshaw, a quarterback who knows that football is the only way he can pay for college; David Bliss, a defensive back with grades so good he is being courted by Harvard; and Christopher Ruffin, a phenom whose mother taught him the game and has already been noticed by Division I schools in his junior year. The bleachers may be empty, and there may be no cheerleaders or marching band, but for many of these players, the Harlem Hellfighters is the start of achieving their dreams, one touchdown at a time.
Director's Statement Collapse
I have worked as a television correspondent for nearly twenty years but have always been intrigued by storytelling in any form. My sister, Margot, uses graphic design as the Creative Director of C Magazine in Los Angeles. My father, Max, used the written word in his career with the New York Times and my brother, David, chose film. I am taken with the power of movies. In the last couple of years I was moved by two documentary films in particular, My Architect and Through the Fire. I remember leaving a TriBeCa screening of Through The Fire and saying, "I want to make a film." In November 2003, I read a column by Harvey Araton in The New York Times about this football team called the Harlem Hellfighters. Right then and there I wanted to do a story for CBS about the team or volunteer as a coach. Unfortunately, my obligations didn't allow me to coach and we did not do the story. Soon after, I left CBS in the hopes of pursuing some other passions and dreams, including making a documentary. I didn't know what the subject would be. In May 2005 I was taking my son to a Yankees game and on the way I saw a gentleman with a gym bag over his shoulder that said, Harlem Hellfighters. I asked him if he was the coach of the team and he said yes. This man was Coach Duke Fergerson. I told him I was interested in coming out to watch practice and perhaps follow the team. He was game. As it turns out, the team would gather on weekends on the same small field where my son was playing in a baseball league. The field was on 120th St. and Park Ave. They often shared the field with neighborhood kids, soccer clubs and little league baseball teams. There were days when 30 guys showed up and other times when only 10 guys were at practice. I first took my Panasonic DVX-100A camera out of the bag and began shooting on May 22, 2005. It was raining. I felt awkward and I'm sure the players did too. They didn't know anything about me and I knew very little about them as individuals. In all my years in television I never felt as much like a journalist as I did working on this film. It was easy to see who the talented football players were but I slowly had to discover who these young men were and what it was they were after. Some of them just wanted to play football and others saw it as an opportunity to earn a college scholarship. Yet, I didn't know what was going to happen from day to day on or off the field. This was the challenge. There were highs and lows for me in watching the players take these steps through their young lives.
Film Information Collapse
[HELLF] | 2007 | 87 | Documentary Feature
Foreign Title: (Hellfighters)
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About the Director(s)Collapse
Raised in New York City, 43-year-old filmmaker JON FRANKEL is a graduate of Syracuse University's S.I. Newhouse School of Communications. Frankel began his career in media as a radio producer for Bob Costas, later spending a season as a producer for NFL Films. Changing gears, Frankel then moved in front of the camera as a local sportscaster in West Palm Beach and Miami. Eventually, he moved back to New York City to work for WNBC. At present, he is a correspondent for Real Sports with Bryant Gumbel on HBO and CNBC's On the Money. Frankel now gets his kicks from cross training, and even participated in the 2002 Ironman Championship in Hawaii. He is also an avid skier. Jon Frankel currently lives in Manhattan with his wife and two children.