When the playwright John Howard Payne said in 1823 that there's no place like home, he wasn't speaking of sports, but any coach worth his whistle will verify the value of the home-field advantage.
Any coach, that is, except those who have recently directed the football team at The McBurney School, a small private prep school in midtown Manhattan. McBurney entered the 1983 football season with a 17-game winning streak, which was broken by a 13-0 loss to Hackley School on Sept. 16, and two consecutive championships in the Long Island Football Conference (which had a geographic base broader than its name) despite playing against high schools with significantly larger student bodies. None of McBurney's wins came at home—McBurney has no home field. In its 67-year history it has never played at home, a fact indissolubly tied to the school's location—on 63rd Street off Central Park West, next door to the West Side Y, just down the block from Berger Cleaners.
The shortest one-way trip the McBurney Highlanders take to their games is about one hour; the longest, more than three hours. And for practice McBurney has to share Central Park's Softball fields at 96th Street with the rest of the city. Five days a week the team rides uptown jamming two school vans with 30 players, and gets out at the edge of the park—a place even Payne would have trouble calling home. "We've had winos wander through our huddle," says former McBurney Tailback John Mikulski, now a freshman football player at the State University of New York in Albany. "Another time there was a gang rumble, and you've always got to watch out for the people playing soccer and softball."
Of course, what's a little interruption now and then when your team doesn't own a blocking sled, dresses in a YMCA locker room half the size of some coaches' offices and until this season for two years was simultaneously guided by two "head" coaches—Rick Starace, who left McBurney, and Joe Puggelli, who left coaching at the end of last season? "We used to say, 'Let's get the heck out of here,' " says Mikulski, "but eventually we learned our job was to play football."
And play they have. During that 17-game stretch they outscored opponents 586-127. Coaches—and most of the rest of us—who are constantly wishing for a fancier this, an improved that, should remember McBurney. Less can sometimes mean more.
Originally the Highlanders practiced at Central Park's 62nd Street softball fields, just a short walk from the school and the local Y. Then in 1981 the field was resodded for softball, and that was the end of McBurney's practices there. "I believe the words were, 'No way, not in a million years,' " remembers Puggelli. So the vans headed uptown to 96th Street.
McBurney's only opportunity to play on anything that might be described as home turf comes during its one-week summer football camp in Dover Plains, N.Y. that Starace and Puggelli instituted three years ago and new Coach Steve Corso continued in '83. Everyone tries to forget that even there the field is little more than a cow pasture with lines, that a state health inspector once closed down their living quarters and that more than 30 people share three showers.
To help keep their minds off the dismal camp surroundings, the team practices almost nonstop from 5:45 a.m. to 9:30 p.m. every day—four sessions, two in full pads. Forget convenience, they are told, you're not like any other high school football team. Take pride in that. Wear each and every annoyance—the bus rides, the locker room, the softball fields—as another badge of courage. Apparently, it works.
"We became impervious to the things around us," says Mikulski's twin brother, Dennis, a linebacker who also now plays at SUNY in Albany. "It was like we were in a tunnel. We came out when the season was over."
Starace, now the business manager at a small Florida prep school, has his own theory about McBurney's success. "We just outworked everyone else," he says.
Now some players think the magic may be over at McBurney. Only four starters returned to the successful I-veer offense refined by Starace, and some Highlanders are concerned that this could be a long year. But any team that can overcome adversity as McBurney has should not be counted out. After all, the Highlanders have proved that home is where the heart is.