It is early evening on Saturday, September 25, smack in the middle of Flatbush. Even on a weekend the traffic is heavy along Flatbush Avenue, but few of the honking, screaming motorists are conscious of the brightly lit patch of AstroTurf where Brooklyn College is about to engage St. John's, its archrival from Queens, in a football game. If the news that they play football at Brooklyn College is not stunning enough all by itself, consider this: last May the City University of New York, of which Brooklyn College is part, was unable to meet its payroll. Only an eleventh-hour, $24 million bequest by the state legislature enabled the students to complete the spring semester. To reopen this fall, CUNY had to charge tuition for the first time since its founding as a free municipal college in 1847. And now the football team, the only football team at CUNY's 17 undergraduate campuses, is operating on a budget of $8,500, which would not pay the recruiting phone bill at Ohio State. And yet it has a 7-1 record for the second straight year and won its division in the Met 8 Conference. Last year Brooklyn even played in a bowl game of sorts.
In the back corridor of Roosevelt Hall where the football coaches' office, training room and locker rooms are located, there is no indication of the hushed, tense atmosphere that usually surrounds a team preparing for a big game. What there is, in fact, is chaos. Running dogs, assorted loiterers and clouds of cigarette smoke fill the narrow hallway, while students of both sexes wander around, screaming. Half-dressed football players are fighting with women field-hockey players for use of the only training room. In the coaches' office, hallowed ground before a game at Ann Arbor or Norman, a garage sale seems to be taking place. Coaches duck behind a wall of tinny lockers to change clothes in privacy. The blackboard contains the standard top-secret Xs and Os of battle on one panel, a grocery list and a display of crude graffiti on another.
One player after another barges in through a door that never stays closed, confronting an assistant coach who seems to be on nursemaid duty.
"Coach! I can't get my locker open."
November 22, 1976
"See if you can find a hacksaw."
"Coach! I lost my mouthpiece."
"We don't have any more. Tear off a piece of underwear or something and stick it in your mouth."
"Coach! You ever hear of a scofflaw?"
"Yeah. It's when you don't pay your parking tickets."
"Oh, yeah. Well, I got $700 worth."
"Coach. I can't play."
"I got half my courses canceled. I can't play football with eight credits."
"You'll have to get some more."
"Coach! There aren't any more."
"No more courses?"
Football is not new at Brooklyn College. The game has a long history there, most of it reading like something by Woody Allen. Novelist and Quarterback Irwin Shaw, class of '34, remembers, "The entire preseason practice of the first Brooklyn College team I played on was conducted on wrestling mats in the basement of a Body Beautiful. I believe we were the only team in the history of American football that, before its opening game, had never scrimmaged and never thrown a pass. We lost, 38-0, to Trenton State Teachers."
Another celebrated ex-Brooklyn player is Allie Sherman, the former coach of the New York Giants, who quarter-backed the Kingsmen—Brooklyn constitutes Kings County—to a 7-2 record in 1939, one of the team's three winning seasons in its first 29 years. (Trivia question: Who played center for Brooklyn when Allie Sherman was the quarterback? Answer: NBC's own Dr. Frank Field.) Sherman's successor, Herbert Wilner, recalls that his wartime team was made up of a "few beefy freshmen still too young for service and a bunch of 4Fs." The part of practice they dreaded most was "groping with our hands along the ledge of the fence in the deepening twilight, feeling for our glasses."
By 1955, after 29 straight losses and a 62-131-14 record, college president Harry D. Gideonse called a halt. Few noticed, and no one was distressed.
But now there is a new team in a new Brooklyn. Thirty years ago the borough was a crazy quilt of ethnic groups living in communities called Canarsie, Bensonhurst, Bay Ridge, Greenpoint, Crown Heights. Each neighborhood was an entity unto itself: Jewish, Irish, Italian, WASP. They were drawn together by an outside world that always seemed to be laughing at them, at their beloved Dodgers and at that hilarious Brooklynese dialect, which Thomas Wolfe used so tellingly in Only the Dead Know Brooklyn: "Dere's no guy livin' dat knows Brooklyn t'roo an' t'roo, because it'd take a guy a lifetime just-to find his way aroun' duh goddam town.... An' even den, yuh wouldn't know it all."
The Dodgers, who packed up for Los Angeles in 1958, weren't the only ones to take it on the lam. Between 1950 and 1970 more than 750,000 people left Brooklyn. The white population decreased by 25%, while the non-white population increased 250%. By 1970, to accommodate increasing numbers of disadvantaged blacks and Hispanics, CUNY opened its colleges to all city high school graduates, regardless of their academic ratings. The freshman class at Brooklyn, which previously had strict entrance requirements, doubled in size from 2,500, but while many students grumbled at finding their classes being conducted in a rented bingo hall, others looked around and decided to get a football team going again.
"Out of 30,000 students, the only ones who stayed on campus longer than they had to were the ones plotting to overthrow the registrar's office or lock up the college president," says Steve Rosenblum, now a Brooklyn assistant football coach. "Nobody cared about anything. They couldn't get out of here fast enough." So, along with fellow students Alex Scamardella and Mike Hill, Rosenblum petitioned the student government to raise $15,000 to start a football team. Soon they had 60 players—"We couldn't have beaten my high school team," says Rosenblum—uniforms, two volunteer coaches and one tackling dummy. One player came to games on his bicycle, another in his Cadillac. They once had all their clothes stolen from a locker room and another time found a skunk planted there. On bus trips they ate salami sandwiches prepared by a player's mother.
One year the coach-trainer, Bill Chisolm, who is still the school's trainer, offered to watch the games from the stands and let the team run itself. That's when the athletic department, which was beginning to take an interest in the team for the revenue it might someday produce, stepped in. It offered the coaching job to Vince Gargano, the very successful coach at Lincoln High School and a popular figure among Brooklyn team members who had played for and against him. It was not an easy choice for Gargano, a Bensonhurst native, but a successful college team in Brooklyn was something he wanted to see.
"Vinnie brought us credibility," says Rosenblum. "He also got good kids to come." And, above all, Gargano made the team into a winner, never caring that his original salary, $3,200, was cut by $3,200 in his second year, and now is a paltry $1,500, little more than half of what he earned coaching at Lincoln (where he still makes his living by teaching phys ed). Gargano assembled the best players he could find from among the thousands of city high school graduates unable to get athletic scholarships elsewhere or afford to attend one of the small private colleges around the New York area, seven of which have club teams that play along with Brooklyn in the two-year-old Met 8 Conference. It is not surprising that the Brooklyn players take the games a bit more seriously than the others and usually win: this year 36-30 over New York Tech, 30-6 over Manhattan, 50-23 over Fairleigh Dickinson, 40-9 over Iona. What the Brooklyn players lack in size and talent, they make up for with determination, pride and Brooklyn grit, which Gargano does not have to drill into them. A jarring 90-minute bus ride—already in pads—through Brooklyn and Queens, across the Whitestone Bridge and into the affluent Westchester hills of Pleasantville to play Pace on a Saturday afternoon is enough to stir the players' blood. "These kids have always been losers," says Gargano. "No one has ever given them anything. I think winning football games is the only winning some of them will ever do."
So now they are 7-1 and, with Pace, co-leaders of the conference. A year ago Brooklyn's unlikely championship season culminated with an invitation to the first annual Coconut Bowl in San Juan, P.R. Shocked by the invitation, which came a week after Brooklyn had packed away its gear after beating Iona in its final game, Gargano phoned some of his players. Tackle Phil Katz thought the coach was going to accuse him of stealing equipment. When Gargano asked him if he wanted to play another game, he said, "Another game? Ah, jeez." When Gargano mentioned Puerto Rico, Katz' attitude changed—until he reported to practice and found that the coach's training regimen included workouts in the dusty 100° furnace room in the basement of Roosevelt Hall.
Once in San Juan, the Kingsmen made headlines by demolishing, in order, Inter-American University 50-12 and the Army barracks at Fort Buchanan, where they were billeted—$151.94 worth.
The latter did not make the sort of headline Brooklyn College and CUNY crave, ARMY VS. BROOKLYN COLLEGE FOOTBALL: A $151.94 BILL reported The New York Times. The accompanying article included the text of a letter written by Colonel Josiah A. Wallace Jr., the post commander, that said the team had "destroyed" sheets, pillows and mattresses, burned clothing in an oven, "littered garbage throughout the area" and kept neighboring families awake with "a continuing stream of obscenities and profanity until after three o'clock in the morning." Dr. Charles Tobey, the Brooklyn athletic director, was quoted as saying the charges were "a tremendous exaggeration" and "blatantly untrue." The Brooklyn players not only admit that every word in the letter is true, but they relish the retelling of the entire crazed affair.
This season Brooklyn has one of the best teams in its history at one of the worst of times. The nearly fatal financial collapse of last May, coupled with CUNY's undergraduate enrollment that has surged past 270,000, have forced every Brooklyn student to come up with $482 (upperclassmen) or $325 (underclassmen) per semester; and to reenroll for next year they must maintain a C average. The college has cut $13 million from its budget, eliminated 360 teaching positions and 850 course sections. The physical education department, in which 50% of the football players take their major, was the hardest hit. Though Brooklyn still plays mostly club teams, this year it achieved varsity status. But there is no full-time publicity man, there are no secretaries, and no one to sweep the cigarette butts off the AstroTurf. The six assistant coaches, some of whom are laid-off teachers, split $4,700.
For the players, finding courses in which to enroll to maintain their eligibility is only one of the problems. There are no scholarships; they receive no special tutoring; their training table is a corner at McDonald's; they must buy their own shoes (some can only afford sneakers), socks, jocks, towels, soap and things like forearm and elbow pads; they wash their own uniforms and take them home every night, because the locker room keeps getting broken into; they get around by bus or subway; they get no spending money. Almost all of them have jobs. They are janitors, mail sorters, bookkeepers, busboys and bouncers. One player, Donald Nissen, a starting guard, works as an auditor on Wall Street midnight to eight five days a week, bounces on weekends, carries a full class load and never misses a practice. "That's animal," says a teammate. And none of the players understands why no one watches them play, especially since tickets are only $3, $2 for students. "What the hell else is going on in Brooklyn on a Friday night?" they ask. Even the Brooklyn College paper did not cover the team until this season. "That ain't surprising," says Defensive Tackle Joe Macchia, "because nobody knew there was a paper, either."
Because Gargano knows what it is like to be a Brooklyn kid—"It hasn't changed that much," he says—he is an easy-going coach who never loses his temper and allows his players every opportunity to relax. They practice three or four days a week and rarely hit. On Mondays, Gargano makes them promise to run on their own, and after watching game films they usually run down to the Jolly Bull Pub on Flatbush Avenue and Campus Road, where the "Pub Club" convenes. They are welcome there. Defensive Tackle Phil Katz is the bouncer two nights a week.
Regaling a bar full of guzzlers with stories of his life, Katz admits that he wasn't really recruited by Woody Hayes while playing at New Utrecht High School—"That was just for my publicity dossier"—and that he never really got his 6'2" 240-pound frame to peel off a 9.9 hundred. He also denies being over 30. Katz spent his freshman year "drinking and sleeping" at Panhandle State College in Goodwell, Okla., but he's back in Brooklyn for good now, convinced that it's the rest of the world that's crazy. "Goodwell, jeez," he says. "You think they ever saw a Jew in Oklahoma? First day at practice, the coach tells us he'll drive us all to church on Sundays. I says, 'Coach, I got to go to shul on Saturdays.' He says, 'Wah, Phil, ah jes' don' know what we goin' do 'bout that.' "
The bar erupts. "I had to get back home to good old Bensonhoist." Katz is playing to his audience now: "In Bensonhoist, all you wanna be is a gangster when you grow up. You got a Caddy? A pinkie ring? You'll make it in Benson-hoist. A lot of tough characters live deh in duh neighborhood."
Also in the Jolly Bull are two of the defensive backs, all of whom are called "the midgets" because they are. One is a flashy 5'7" white-shoed black named Kelly Brown, whose high school coach used to hit his players. Brown grew up in racially troubled Brownsville and used to watch junkies shoot up while he was caring for his pigeons on the roof of his tenement building. The other is a 5'7" Turk named Tom Zahralban, Z to his mates, a geology major who talks a blue streak and often wears his helmet backward—"for confusion," he says. (Z quit the team last month.) The fullback, 5'8", 180-pound Ed Conroy, is an Irishman who set a beer-consumption record at last year's football dinner. The quarterback, Ray Shalhoub, is all that a college quarterback is supposed to be: bright, handsome, cool. And skinny: 6', 165 pounds. Shalhoub was too small to play for his high school team and learned football in a Prospect Park sandlot league, playing every other year. "I was a pygmy," he says. "Every two years I'd go into a new age division, and I'd have to wait till the second year to be big enough."
Then there is Jerry Wright, a 6'1", 200-pound halfback who is the one player probably good enough to play at most colleges in the country. As Katz is garrulous, Wright is silent. Born in Harlem, he moved to Charleston, S.C. with his three brothers and three sisters at age six when their mother died. Five years later, the boys returned to Crown Heights to live with an aunt. When Jerry was 15, their apartment house burned to the ground. They moved to a low-income neighborhood in the northeast Bronx, where Wright went out for football at Evander Childs High School and ran the 40 in 4.8 as a sophomore, the first time he was ever clocked. During his senior year he scored 13 touchdowns and got one serious offer, from Cheyney State. But Wright did not want to leave New York. He went to Brooklyn because it was free and there were no academic requirements. Last year, as a freshman, he gained 824 yards, averaged 11 yards per carry and scored 10 touchdowns, one for every seven carries. Against New York Tech this year he ran for 165 yards and two touchdowns, but an ankle sprain kept him out of most of the next four games. He came back for the Iona game and gained 117 yards. He rides three subway trains two hours each way, every day, to get to and from the college, leaving home at 6:30 a.m. and returning at 10 p.m. His idol is Tony Dorsett. Jerry would like to win a Heisman. Hardly anyone at Brooklyn has ever heard of him. He will probably not be able to meet Brooklyn's new academic requirement for next year.
The Brooklyn players are assembling in a large, modern classroom upstairs in Roosevelt Hall for a final chalk-talk before the St. John's game. Half a dozen are still down in the training room, waiting anxiously for the one available table to get their ankles taped. A student trainer, JoAnn DiGrazia, is doing her best, finishing off Joe Macchia. He says thanks and walks gingerly into the hallway where, out of her sight, he rewraps both ankles. "So, sometimes your ankles turn a little blue," he says. "You don't want to say nothing."
Upstairs, Gargano is giving a remarkable pep talk. "Now, they're real big, and they want to beat you bad. But let me tell you, you can match them. You got to get that spirit that comes from a challenge. I had a friend who was a bomber pilot in the war, and he told me that the feeling he got diving in on a bombing run was the same feeling he got standing on the goal line waiting for the opening kickoff." Out of affection for Gargano the players held straight faces.
It is time to hit the field. Someone has to nudge Donald Nissen, the midnight-to-eighter. He has fallen asleep.
As the players burst onto AstroTurf Field—the $1 million field, which Brooklyn College built in 1974 before the crunch, is actually named AstroTurf Field—someone yells, "This is big-time football!" There are no more than 500 people scattered through the stands. Mil-tie Schwartz, the part-time sports information director, points out that it is Rosh Hashanah. "That don't make no difference, Miltie," says Macchia. "Seventy-five percent of our crowds are our parents and friends and, anyway, we only got three Jewish players."
There is no band. Brooklyn's band has never played at a football game. A policeman sings The Star-Spangled Banner a cappella.
There are cheerleaders, impeccably uniformed and drill-team sharp. They all sound like Lavernes and Shirleys: "We-ah from Brooklyn. We couldn't be proud-ah...."
Brooklyn is playing without Wright and Shalhoub, both of whom injured ankles the previous week in the New York Tech game. Shalhoub is manning the phones up in the 20-foot-high scaffolding that serves as the press box.
Playing a sloppy first half with two inexperienced quarterbacks running the Veer, Brooklyn fumbles three times and gets called for two costly penalties. In one series, Gargano loses track of downs and calls for an inside plunge on third and eight. The half ends scoreless. To get back to their locker room, Brooklyn has to swing across the field to avoid a gang fight.
At the end of halftime, Gargano announces that Brooklyn will open its first series with "18 right, to the twins," a power option. An assistant argues that they've been running that play all night. He wants to pass. "They know we've been running 18," says Gargano, "so they won't expect us to use it first thing." A voice from the back of the room—it sounds like Z—says, "Coach, I don't tink deah dat stu-pit."
Brooklyn receives the kickoff and "18 right, to the twins" goes for minus three. Gargano is yelling into the phone for Shalhoub to give him St. John's defensive alignment. Shalhoub is talking to a girl in the stands.
Brooklyn mounts a drive, but Conroy fumbles on the three. St. John's players are taunting the Brooklyns. The cheerleaders chant, "Beat 'em! Bust 'em! Jump on deah heads!"
St. John's kicks a field goal and leads 3-0 in the fourth quarter. On a third and six, a Brooklyn receiver gets belted trying to catch a pass.
Cheerleaders: "Hey referee! Call what-cha see! Whatcha don' see don' call on me!"
Another Brooklyn drive gets down to the St. John's 18. This time Chris Legree runs a quarterback draw for a touchdown. He holds the ball in the face of his pursuer. The teams line up for the extra point, but Brooklyn has to call time out to find its kicking tee. "I didn't even know we had a kicker," says the manager. Lester Staubitz kicks it true: 7-3.
Now the Brooklyn defense is fierce. Katz and Macchia sack the St. John's quarterback twice. Brooklyn regains the ball on downs and Conroy runs 33 yards for another touchdown. Brooklyn wins 13-3. "Just remember," yells Katz, "it never rains on the Jewish holidays."
After the game there is more revelry as the Pub Club swings back into action, making its way around Flatbush from Jolly Bull to Glenwood Rest to Grandma's, with byplay like the sound track from a Leo Gorcey movie.
Z (to Katz): Phil, they knocked you into Row 10 tonight. Meet anybody nice?
Katz: I love you, Z. You're great to push off on when I'm getting up off a pile.
Z: Yeah. Jeez. You hurt me that time.
Katz: I know. When you were out I wanted to put a tape recording of your voice in my helmet so I'd know where I was.
Macchia: Z, I don't know why people think you're crazy, just because you talk to rocks.
Z: You laugh. But I'm going to do something scientifically famous someday.
There is a rumor that the team is going to be invited to tour Japan in January. "Ah, that's a lot a wind," says Katz. "Yeah," says Macchia. "That don't turn us on. We don't play football for stuff like that. Look, Puerto Rico was nice, but to tell you the truth, when the season's over I don't want to play no more football until next year." The others agree.
"We're not Notre Dame," says Z. "We play because we want to play. We don't want the pressure. You go to a big school, you're living your life to play football. How many guys make the pros? Out of a hundred, maybe 10? What do the others have? Nothing. They wind up doing some stupid thing. What? Go around saying they played football in college? That and 50 cents'll just about get you on the subway."