Of the five boroughs that make up New York City, the one hardest to bring into focus is Staten Island. The only thing most people know about this obscure outpost is that the ferry goes there from the tip of Manhattan and that the trip costs a nickel. Well, it's a quarter now.
Even Staten Islanders refer to their home as the Lost Borough. Though the 60.6-square-mile island became part of New York City in 1898, it hasn't ever really seemed to be a part of it. For one thing, Staten Island is a lot closer to New Jersey than to either Brooklyn or Manhattan. For another, until the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge to Brooklyn was built in 1964, residents had to embark on a sea voyage to get to any of the other boroughs directly. And the borough is home to the Fresh Kills landfill, the world's largest garbage dump, which grows in size with daily bargeloads of refuse collected from the four other boroughs. Sniffs one Staten Islander, "We'd really have an inferiority complex if it weren't for the Bronx."
Thus it is fitting that Wagner College, home of the Seahawks, the nation's best Division III football team last season, sits perched atop Staten Island's Grymes Hill. As with the island itself, few seem to know precisely where or what Wagner College is. Even Seahawk coach Walt Hameline says, "When I think of New York City. I think of good Italian restaurants, the Empire State Building, the bright lights. I don't think of Division III college football."
Indeed, New York City is not exactly a great college football town in any division: Columbia, the city's lone Division I-AA entry, is in the midst of a 41-game losing streak. For bona fide glory, you would have to go back to 1936, when Fordham's Seven Blocks of Granite were solid headline news, or 1947, when Columbia upset undefeated Army.
September 4, 1988
What makes the Wagner story so appealing is that the Seahawks have risen from obscurity to become the best of the 210 schools that play football in Division III. From 1927, when Wagner started its football program, to 1979, the team never had more than four winning seasons in a row. Since 1980, the Seahawks have run off eight straight winners. Hameline's seven-year record at Wagner is 62-13-2, including last season's 13-1. "We have proved that anything is possible in a lifetime if you want it to be," says the Seahawk coach.
Still, before last year, the Seahawks had made the Division III playoffs in only two seasons, 1980 and 1982, and both times they lost their first game. No way were they going to be a threat to Augustana (Ill.), national champ the previous four years and a team with a 17-4 playoff record, or Wittenberg, the winningest Division III school of all with 504 victories. But in last fall's playoffs, Wagner beat Rochester, Fordham and Emory & Henry. Then, in the Stagg Bowl in Phenix City, Ala., on Dec. 12, the Seahawks destroyed Dayton 19-3 for the championship, prompting losing coach Mike Kelly to confess. "Truthfully, we should have lost by more than we did."
The secret to Wagner's success may be that it has exactly the proper spirit. So proper that a general admission ticket to a game at Fischer Field costs $5, hot dogs are two for the price of one at the start of the fourth quarter, and parking is free. Free parking in New York City. "All you have to do to succeed is get out there and hustle," says Hameline. "And if you're enthusiastic, something good will happen down the line."
Which sounds just like what a big-time coach would say. In fact, Hameline—who it is feared will soon leave Wagner for brighter lights—is shrewder than that. First, he and his staff hustle to find players whom nobody has any interest in—after all, Division III is the last stop for a football player before the couch in front of the TV. Second, the Seahawk coaches have to convince these athletes what a good deal it is for them to pay their own way through college. And what fun it is to play football in front of a couple of thousand fans—no TV, of course—on Fischer Field, a sorry slab of turf that would embarrass most high schools. And what a thrill it is to play for a school that has sent only one player, Rich Kotite, now offensive coordinator for the New York Jets, to the NFL. Says Kotite, who played tight end for the New York Giants and the Steelers before retiring after the 1972 season, "Wagner winning the championship is like Rocky Balboa knocking out Apollo Creed."
In his cramped little office in Sutter Gym, Hameline reveals the Seahawks' secret formula: "What we offer is the opportunity to play every week." The coach knows that little boys take up football when they are eight years old for one reason: to have fun. To this end, no player is ever cut at Wagner: Hameline has a junior varsity, and those who don't play in the big game Saturday get to play with the jayvee on Sunday. The Wagner jayvee goes anywhere, provided the opposing team pays for the bus. Usually, that means Nassau Community College on Long Island, Columbia in Manhattan, Villanova and Lafayette in Pennsylvania. It makes a lot of sense to the player who has sat on the bench game after game. It also makes sense to anyone who has practiced football, which is the pits, but then played in games, which is a special glory.
And Wagner won the national championship on a shoestring. In these days of $100 helmets, the Seahawks' annual football budget, including salaries, is less than $125,000. "Theater, choir, band, the newspaper are what really round out a campus," says former school provost C. Carlyle Haaland, who left Wagner on July 1. "And football is also a very large part of the equation. This is still the play-for-fun division. So we think the players should have a good time, then go on to something else when they are 22. Maybe become a lawyer or actor or anything, have a good career, and play a little touch football in the park on Sunday. What we do is help the students see the possibilities in their lives."
Each year Hameline brings in some 75 students who think they are football players, a significant number for a small school (Wagner's full-time enrollment: 1,292, half of whom are women). Almost all of the players come from New York and New Jersey. Indeed, of the 48-man traveling roster that went to the Stagg Bowl, 44 were from those two states, one was from Massachusetts, two were from Connecticut, and one, linebacker George Camargo, was from North Miami Beach.
Oddly enough, location is one of Wagner's few advantages: Football coaches around the nation generally hate to recruit in New York State, and especially in New York City. The recruiters get lost or caught in traffic. And for some reason—perhaps because basketball is so dominant—New York City high school football isn't very good. But it's good enough for Wagner. Conversely, New Jersey is a hotbed for college recruiters, but the state boasts so many first-rate footballers that there are plenty of leftovers for the Seahawks' table.
It's an odd assortment that ends up at Wagner. Take the senior quarterback, Greg Kovar of Hazlet, N.J., who admits, "I never even thought about playing in college. I never even thought about going to college." But Hameline pursued Kovar, stuck with him (he was 0 for 2 passing as a sophomore), and last season the Seahawks' quarterback completed 56.8% of his 303 passes, including 22 for touchdowns. Kovar says the kind of player who comes to Wagner is one who "likes to feel comfortable." Wagner is like a pair of old slippers. Just put your feet up and look out over the Statue of Liberty.
Linebacker Artie DiMella, who had a whopping 149 tackles last year and who recently graduated with a degree in economics, says, "It has been a symbiotic relationship. I got an education and they got a lot of tackles." When DiMella was a high school senior in Clinton Corners, N.Y., he tried hard to get a college interested in him. "Nobody called me. Their loss. They missed out on a good student-athlete." But Hameline called. And called. When DiMella showed up on Staten Island, he was the Seahawks' eighth linebacker. He knew he had to get recognized, to stand out. So when the coaches said not to tackle the quarterback, DiMella tackled him; when the coaches screamed to stop at the whistle, DiMella kept crashing; when the coaches emphasized no hitting out of bounds, DiMella would hit far out of bounds. DiMella got noticed. "I'm not the best player; I just play with my heart," he says.
Which, of course, defines the Wagner spirit. "Our enthusiasm overcomes our lack of talent," says Rich Negrin, from Edison, N.J., a starting offensive tackle last year. Premier running back Terry Underwood of Cliffwood Beach, N.J., voices another tenet of the Wagner ethos: "I always anticipate my opponent being a little better than me." At Wagner, cockiness is bad form. Underwood, a senior who rushed for 1,467 yards last year, also is sensible about the future. "Football is just something I like to do. But when it's over, it's over," he says. "I look forward to other things, like maybe being an attorney."
Occasionally a big-time player falls into Wagner's lap—like defensive end Troy Henry, a senior from Staten Island who had scholarship offers from Syracuse, Rutgers and Temple. He chose Temple. But before his second year the Owls tried to move Henry to offensive guard, which meant he had to learn trap blocking and getting out on the corners. "For the first time in my life," he says, "T felt totally helpless on the football field." Henry came home and called the local school, Wagner. "Sometimes I wish I had come here in the first place," he says. "This is what college football should be all about."
Yes, it is, if only because the success of a college football program should not be measured by how many players it preps for the pros. Still, for those who persist in looking to the NFL for confirmation of greatness. Division III has its notable alums: retired All-Pro quarterback Ken Anderson played for Augustana; Seattle quarterback Dave Krieg came from the now defunct Milton College in Wisconsin; Ram starting offensive guard Tom Newberry played for Wisconsin-La Crosse; and Sam Mills, starting linebacker for the New Orleans Saints, played for Montclair (N.J.) State. There are others. Just not a lot of others.
Wagner further distinguishes itself by maintaining a clear vision of its place in the college game. The school doesn't talk about playing Penn State in a few years; it doesn't talk about being able to beat Syracuse. Indeed, former provost Haaland says of Wagner's football aspirations, "I think we're kind of there. We will have fat years, a few really fat, and a few lean. That's about right." And that, again, is the perfect spirit for a school that, on a clear night, commands a spectacular view of Manhattan, the George Washington Bridge and New York Harbor. Having a great view of Manhattan just might be better than being in Manhattan. Perspective counts in everything.
"We do have the right perspective," says Hameline. "Football's a game. My goal is for the players to look back on their football here and say. 'It was a positive experience.' As long as the players play hard and with enthusiasm, that's O.K. Coaches care too much when they lose. Besides, when you lose, the cure is to win next time."
From atop Staten Island's Grymes Hill, another day is winding down. All's well with the ferry. And with Wagner. Even though the Seahawks have lost three offensive linemen (with 11 years' starting experience among them) and most of their defensive backs from the championship team, Hameline says, "I think we'll be fine." And that, in the long haul, is all Wagner aspires to. Which is fine.