When Stuyvestant Excessive ended its soccer season after 9/11
Follow our live coverage of the 20th anniversary of September 11th.
The football season began with a win for the Stuyvesant High School peglegs. A team full of seniors and playoff expectations beat a tough Staten Island rival in the first game of the season, played on the warm afternoon of Saturday, September 8, 2001.
Three days later, the terrible tragedy that changed the world occurred and left an indelible emotional impact on the students of Stuyvesant and their football team.
Stuyvesant is just a few blocks from the World Trade Center. So close that the ten-story school building shook when the hijacked jets hit the twin towers. So close that some students feared they would be crushed if the buildings collapsed.
“I remember so many moments from that terrible day and our struggle afterwards to put a season together,” said Paul Chin, a wide receiver on the team. “I remember it, feeling for feeling, picture for picture. They are fragments of memories and they do not go away. “
Everyone on this team wears them, added Chin, now 37 and an associate professor in the Relay Graduate School of Education.
“It was 20 years ago?” he said. “How can that be?”
Think about September 11th and the sport for a moment. Most often the stories of the professionals or college athletes are told, big names on the big stage and their defiant, resolute re-use. The Yankees and their run to the World Series. Mike Piazza’s homer for the Mets in the team’s first home game after the attacks. One of the first major college football games, Nebraska welcomes Rice to a stadium dotted with American flags and unrestrained patriotism.
High school football, just getting started this summer, played an important but lesser-known role in helping a non-anchored nation heal its wounds. Across America – north to south, west to east – football seasons played by little-known teenagers were more personal solace than the World Series or Michigan vs. Ohio State.
Few high school teams were hit harder by 9/11 than the Stuyvesant Peglegs, who are still unusually close even now. They attend each other’s weddings, celebrate each other’s newborns, have group chats, and fantasy leagues. Many of them attended this summer for the funeral of Matt Hahn, a beloved assistant coach who died in July at the age of 67. Paralyzed from the waist down, Hahn looked after the team from a wheelchair.
“He was so important to the children back then. His role model meant everything to this team, ”said David Velkas, the team’s now retired coach, who led the team in his first year at the time. “Matty didn’t let anything stop him from doing what he was doing and living his life. And against this background we wouldn’t let September 11 hold us back. “
None of his players lost close family members in the attacks, Velkas said, but almost all saw the devastation up close. They huddled with their fellow students to evacuate from the school. They made their way north, sometimes sprinting for fear of being hit by falling buildings or flying concrete.
They made their way home – or in the case of players like Chin who lived in Battery Park City, which was uninhabitable because of the attacks – to the homes of friends and family members.
They wondered what was coming next. What would become of her school year, her beloved team, her season of high hopes?
Stuyvesant, one of New York City’s most elite public schools for over 100 years, was closed for almost a month. His building became a triage center.
“For a while, nobody knew if we were going to have a season,” Velkas told me during one of nearly a dozen phone interviews with members of the team. “We were in limbo. Other schools played in town and across the country, but we didn’t. But we also knew it was important to give the teenagers on this team something to hold onto. “
The entire school temporarily moved to Brooklyn Technical High School for weeks, where the Peglegs trained football in the morning and went to class in the afternoon. There were no showers so they changed in a shop space.
In their first game in late September, they stood alongside their Long Island City High opponents for the national anthem. That had never happened before. Velkas – his wife’s fire department cousin died in the attacks – distributed stickers with the American flag that the players could attach to their helmets. The peglegs lost 42-14.
By mid-October, the 3,000 or so Stuyvesant students had returned to their campus. There was still a terrible, acrid smell in the air. The streets around the school were filled with checkpoints, barricades and policemen with high-powered weapons.
Football has traditionally been neglected at Stuyvesant, known for its competitive academics. But the school went out of its way to support the team in 2001, Eddie Seo recalled, a close end to that year who is now volunteering as an assistant coach.
Seo said officials arranged buses to take students from all five boroughs to this year’s home game at John F. Kennedy High in the Bronx. The peglegs lost again, but Seo remembered most vividly how the grandstands were filled with what seemed like a thousand fans instead of the usual few dozen.
“I came off the field and heard my friends in the stands say, ‘Big catch, great game!'” Said Seo. “I hadn’t heard that before. That was as good as any other to heal us from what we had been through. “
The tough season went on. Key players suffered injuries at the end of the season. A few give up.
Even before September 11th, the Peglegs did not have a field of their own. They practiced in overgrown public parks across Manhattan. All parks on 10th Street and Franklin D. Roosevelt Drive were closed or inaccessible after the attacks. To get there, the team was given permission to drive through a restricted area near Ground Zero. That meant passing a huge pile of smoldering rubble: the remains of the collapsed towers.
The bus stopped on every trip and workers in protective suits sprayed it with water. “When we passed the heap,” recalled Velkas, “we sometimes heard a horn. The workers had found someone’s remains. We would be quiet and I would tell everyone to be quiet. “
Some players prayed, he said. Others sat petrified with grief.
All these years later, a question has to be asked, and in retrospect.
With our generation’s increasing understanding of trauma and post-traumatic stress – and our knowledge of how the nation plunged into a catastrophic war – was it the right choice for Stuyvesant High or any other youth sports team to play again so soon?
“Does it make sense to have a team full of high school football players driving through the rubble of 9/11 to practice?” Asked Lance Fraenkel, who led the Stuyvesant junior college team in 2001. “Maybe we should have felt uncomfortable and walked around. And maybe we should have paused the whole season. But I think these decisions are hard to make at the moment, and looking back, I’m glad we played. “
The season, he said, gave the players an emotional boost at a time of great need.
When it ended, Stuyvesant’s record was 2-5. But after September 11th it was no longer about winning. Just playing was enough to win.
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