They took the field on Thanksgiving Day, and that in itself was a small miracle.
A few of the players held hands as they approached midfield for the pregame coin toss. One of them held a small red hammer, suddenly a symbol of their struggle. Their head coach had told them what this game meant, both to their school and to all of New York City. That much was obvious as the players looked up into the stands and saw more than 6,000 people bundled up to watch a rescheduled high school playoff game on a national holiday.
The players lined up for the opening kick. Today would be special, win or lose, because tonight would be very difficult. Tonight, nearly a dozen of them would not be going home. Eleven of the players on the Xavier high school football team were displaced by Hurricane Sandy.
And yet here they were, all together on the field, maybe for the last time.
They joked about this storm. Xavier head coach Chris Stevens admits it. The weekend before Sandy arrived, Stevens and his trusted assistant, Brian McMahon, laughed as they remembered Hurricane Irene the year before. It was supposed to be the storm of the century, but it mostly fizzled, and McMahon figured the hype around this one was "a government conspiracy to help the hotel industry."
By that Monday night, it was clear Sandy was very real.
Xavier is a Jesuit school located in Manhattan, but it draws students from all five boroughs. Several players on the football team live in the outer boroughs, and some of them found themselves in trouble. A wall of water rushed through towns in the Rockaways, and buildings burst into flames. Ryan McDade, one of the team's running backs, found his house flooded in what seemed like seconds. The lights went out. And then he heard the rumble of fire. Wind was carrying an inferno from house to house, incinerating everything in its path, and McDade's family was three homes away.
"All the light you could see," McDade says, "was from the fire."
The 17-year-old put on a wetsuit, went to the backyard and grabbed two surfboards. Then he bashed a window to pull a kayak from the garage. With the help of his parents, he put his two little sisters and the family pets on the surfboards, and put his 78-year-old grandmother in the kayak. Then he helped pull them all to safety. It was a long, frigid, damp night for the high school senior, but the next day was worse. Ryan returned to his neighborhood and everything was gone.
"To see my house," he says, "I didn't even recognize it. All ashes."
A week went by before any shred of normalcy returned. That's when school resumed. McDade, whose family rented a place in Brooklyn, saw his teammates and realized 10 others had lost their homes, destined to be displaced for months. One coach had eight feet of water in his basement. Another running back piled up sandbags only to watch them come crashing down in a torrent of water that destroyed his basement bedroom. "First couple weeks, players were where they ran to," says Stevens. "Some were farmed off to family. A number of them stayed with teammates. Our senior tight end had four kids in his house."
The remainder of the JV football season was canceled and there was thought of scrapping the varsity season, too. Stevens started calling players and parents. He'll never forget the resounding response he got.
"Look, coach," one player told him. "I just lost everything. I can't lose that too. Please tell them we'll play."
And so they would play.
Still there were other problems. Where would the team practice? Xavier didn't have a football facility in Manhattan, so it usually bussed to a field in Brooklyn. But even that was underwater after the storm. The nor'easter which hit the city a week after Sandy caused the cancelation of more practices. And the team's first playoff game, against a team from a better division, was only a few days away.
The goal through the playoffs, Stevens says, was "don't worry about winning or losing. Our goal is to get to this game. This game is 10 days beyond the season. Ten days of camaraderie and unity."
And 10 days of service. Despite all the difficulty the players and their loved ones were going through, many spent hours helping others affected by the storm. The first relief effort happened November 2, while Xavier (and most of lower Manhattan) was still without power.
Stevens remembers leaving the school one day and stumbling across a bucket of red hammers. He figured they were left there by workers assigned to an adjoining building. He found out later they were meant for a service trip to be taken by the students. Stevens took the hammers and, in a speech to his team, held up two of them in the shape of an X, for Xavier. The red hammer was a new symbol for the school, for the victims, for the team, and for the story they would all be finishing together.
Xavier's first playoff game came against Mount St. Michael, a top-ranked team from a higher division. The Knights went down 22-12 at half, only to score 28 points after the break to upset the No. 1 seed in the playoffs. Something was happening here.
The Knights kept going, kept practicing, kept serving. And kept studying. Stevens is a history teacher too, and he gave his displaced students a break. He would only count test scores if they helped overall GPA. The players all got A's anyway. Some of them without homes actually took the SAT on the morning of the playoff game, and then won the game.
There were emotional moments, like when McMahon finally returned to practice even though he still didn't have any heat in his house. He's a tough guy, a hunter, and his signature yell – "Readyyyyy … GO!" – is a gruff hallmark of every practice. But when McMahon came back and the students lined up to run for him, McMahon broke down and cried.
The Thanksgiving Day game, against Fordham Prep, would be just as tough as the first-round game. The rivalry went back many years, and Fordham Prep won a lot more than it lost against the Knights. But not on this day. Xavier won, in front of all those thousands of fans, beating the No. 2 ranked team after beating the top-ranked team. Trey Solomon, who ran for 218 yards and three touchdowns, told the Brooklyn Daily, "For me it just means I get to spend 10 more days with the guys I love."
So here they are, teammates that could have stopped playing and didn't, one game away from an improbable, inspiring title. The Knights play Saturday for a championship. It will be the school's first title game in 16 years.
More than a month after Sandy hit, all 11 players displace by the storm are still living away from their homes. Some coaches are still waiting to get back their power and heat. And there's still no practice field. This week, the Knights went through drills in the cafeteria. Stevens was accidentally pinned when a player running a route shoved him into a pillar in the school basement.
"We're using everything we have," says McDade.
That's just it. They will walk out onto that field Saturday after using everything they have: the hammers, the surfboards, the kayak, the soccer field, the cafeteria and most importantly the strength of each other. They are Xavier's team, and New York City's team.
On Saturday, at 8 a.m., Xavier is organizing another relief trip to help Sandy victims. That night at 8 p.m., a team will walk out for one last coin toss.
A media panel of prep football experts has already weighed in on the Catholic High School AA championship.
None of them picked Xavier to win.
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