The football season began with a victory for the Peglegs of Stuyvesant High School. A team loaded with seniors and playoff expectations beat a tough rival from Staten Island in Game One of the season, played on the hot afternoon of Saturday, September 8, 2001.
Three days later comes the terrifying tragedy that changed the world and left an indelible emotional imprint on the students of Stuyvesant and their football team.
Stuyvesant is a few blocks from the World Trade Center. So close that the 10-story school building shook when the hijacked jets cut the Twin Towers. So close that some students feared they would be crushed if the buildings fell.
“I remember so many moments from that terrible day and our struggle afterwards to put together a season,” said Paul Chin, a wide receiver for that team. “I remember it feeling by feeling, frame by frame. They are fragments of memories, and they do not disappear.
Everyone on this team wears them, added Chin, now 37 and an associate professor at the Relay Graduate School of Education.
“It’s been 20 years? he said. “How can that be? “
Think for a moment about September 11 and sports. The most told stories are those of professionals or collegiate athletes, big names on the big stage, and their provocative and resolute return to action. The Yankees and their World Series race. Mike Piazza’s home run 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 dripping with American flags and displays of unfettered patriotism.
High school football, which was just getting underway that summer, has played a significant but lesser publicized role in helping an unchecked nation heal from its injuries. Across America – from north to south, west to east – the football seasons played by little-known teens have brought more personal comfort than the World Series or Michigan vs. Ohio State.
Few high school teams were more affected by 9/11 than the Stuyvesant Peglegs, who remain exceptionally close even now. They attend each other at weddings, celebrate each other’s newborns, have fantastic group chats and leagues. Many of them showed up 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 up, Hahn framed the team from a wheelchair.
“It was so important to the kids back then. His example meant everything to this team, ”said David Velkas, the team’s retired coach, who was in his first year at the helm at the time. “Matty didn’t let anything stop him from doing what he was doing and living his life. And with that in mind, we wouldn’t let 9/11 stop us.
None of his players lost close family members in the attacks, Velkas said, but almost all of them saw the devastation up close. They rushed with their comrades to evacuate the school. They headed north, sprinting at times, fearing that they would be hit by falling buildings or flying concrete.
They returned home – or in the case of players like Chin, who lived in Battery Park City, which was uninhabitable due to the attacks – to friends and family.
They wondered what was to come next. What would become of their school year, their beloved team, their season of high hopes?
Stuyvesant, for over 100 years one of New York’s most elite public schools, closed for almost a month. His building has become a sorting center.
“For a while nobody knew if we were going to have a season,” Velkas told me in one of nearly a dozen recent phone interviews with members of the team. “We were in limbo. Other schools were playing in the city and across the country, but not us. But we also knew that giving the teens on this team something to hold onto – that was key. “
The whole school temporarily moved for weeks to Brooklyn Technical High School, where the Peglegs played football in the mornings and went to class in the afternoon. There were no showers, so they changed in a store room.
In their first game in late September, they stood alongside their opponents from Long Island City High for the national anthem. This had never happened before. Velkas – whose firefighter cousin of his wife died in the attacks – handed out American flag stickers for players to put on their helmets. The Peglegs lost, 42-14.
By mid-October, the 3,000 or so students from Stuyvesant were back on their campus. A horrible pungent smell still hung in the air. The streets around the school were filled with checkpoints, barricades and police officers carrying powerful weapons.
Football has traditionally been overlooked in Stuyvesant, known for its competitive academics. But the school pulled out all the stops in 2001 to support the team, recalls Eddie Seo, a tight end that year who volunteered as an assistant coach.
Seo said officials had arranged buses to transport students from all five boroughs to this year’s return game at John F. Kennedy High in the Bronx. The Peglegs lost again, but what Seo recalled most clearly was how filled the stands with what looked like a thousand fans instead of the usual few dozen.
“I walked out of the field and could hear my friends in the stands say, ‘Great catch, great game!’ Said Seo. “I had never heard that before. It was as effective a way as any to heal what we had been through.
On the hard season is gone. Key players suffered late-season injuries. A few have resigned.
Even before September 11, the Peglegs had no land of their own. They were training in weed-overrun public parks across Manhattan. In the aftermath of the attacks, all parks had closed or were inaccessible except one on 10th Street and Franklin D. Roosevelt Drive. To get there, the team was cleared to cross a restricted area by bus near Ground Zero. It meant passing a huge pile of smoking rubble: the remains of fallen towers.
On each trip, the bus stopped and workers in hazmat suits sprayed it with water. “As we walked past the pile,” Velkas recalls, “we sometimes heard a horn blast. The workers had found someone’s remains. We would be quiet and I would tell everyone to shut up.
Some players prayed, he said. Others were seated in the face of grief.
A question must be asked, all these years later, and given the hindsight.
With our generation’s heightened understanding of trauma and post-traumatic stress – and our knowledge of how the nation rushed into disastrous war – was this the right choice for Stuyvesant High, or any youth sports team? , to come back to play so early?
“Does it make sense to have a squad full of high school footballers walking through the rubble of 9/11 to train? Wondered Lance Fraenkel, captain of the Stuyvesant junior varsity team in 2001. “Maybe we should have been inconvenienced and gone around. And maybe we should have taken a break all season. But I think it’s hard to make those decisions in the moment, and looking back I’m glad we played.
The season, he said, gave players an emotional boost at a time of great need.
In the end, Stuyvesant’s record was 2-5. But after September 11, it was no longer a question of winning. Just playing was enough to get the victory.