Sometimes you don’t know how much you’re a part of things until things come apart.
Wagner College sits atop a bump on Staten Island called Grymes Hill, a relatively safe haven when Hurricane Sandy ran its zone blitz on New York City. Homecoming was celebrated on a Saturday, students were evacuated on Sunday and on Tuesday the football team straggled back to a deserted campus left without power, with all manner of devastation and tragedy in the neighborhoods below.
The four days that followed would define the season for Wagner, one of those small, subtle redemptions inevitably assigned to sports when life knocks us down.
That was a month ago.
Now the Seahawks visit Cheney on Saturday to resume the NCAA’s Football Championship Subdivision playoffs against Eastern Washington, the tasks growing ever more difficult but the sense of mission crystallized.
“It really does seem,” running back Dominique Williams said, “like we’re playing for something other than ourselves.”
Originally founded to train Lutheran ministers, Wagner is small (enrollment 2,000), private and low profile, unless you saw “School of Rock,” which was filmed there. Famous alums? Well, there’s Robert Loggia, who got whacked and had his cocaine empire usurped by Al Pacino in “Scarface.”
It’s been an FCS school since just 1993, after years as a Division III power – including a national championship in 1987. Its league, the Northeast Conference, caps football scholarships at 40 compared with the Big Sky’s 63. Walt Hameline has been the football coach for 32 years, winning 213 games and having the field named for him, and if the victories have come harder the last half-dozen or so, he’s grateful for the patience of the athletic director he’s had for 31 of those years.
In that role, he’s also traveled the country as a member of the NIT basketball steering committee.
“No matter where you go, you think the grass is a little greener,” he said. “Then you get to that place and listen to those guys and realize, ‘Holy cow, they’ve got a lot of issues.’ It kind of helped me realize I was where I wanted to be doing what I wanted to do.”
This season has certainly reinforced that.
The Seahawks had won five straight after a 0-3 start when Sandy showed off her bad self, just in time to twist a kink into preparations for a showdown at NEC bully Albany. A single generator in the gym helped them keep laptops charged enough to watch scouting video, but the game plan went on index cards. Regulars filled in on the scout team when some of the younger players couldn’t make it back to campus. One lineman had 10 teammates sleeping on the floor in his apartment.
The game? Wagner 30, Albany 0.
And in the process, the team and the borough bonded a bit in a way maybe they hadn’t before.
“A bunch of us volunteered one day at one of the areas that was hit hard,” quarterback Nick Doscher said. “You see people who’d lost their homes – on top of the 20-some who lost their lives – and it drove home the severity of it all, but you also got to see people pull together.”
Doscher remembered a huge oil tanker beached (“those things aren’t supposed to move like that”), and a bar operated by a friend’s family washed away. Williams recalled piles of debris bigger than Wagner’s tallest linemen, and a grateful woman who broke down in tears when the football players showed up to clear out appliances and other heavy items.
“It was devastating to see people have things taken from them that they’d worked for for so long,” Williams said. “That humbled me. The very same thing can happen in football – your career can be taken from you like that.”
Emotionally, the Seahawks are as steady as they come. There are 24 seniors on the roster, and Doscher is a 25-year-old former minor league catcher in the Royals chain. During their nine-game win streak, they’ve turned the ball over exactly once.
But even in the course of the streak, there’s the team before Sandy, and the Seahawks who’ve emerged since.
“It really brought our kids closer,” Hameline insisted. “When they got out in the community and helped people, everybody felt good about themselves, and they were appreciative that people who didn’t have anything left were encouraging them to go win a game and maybe give them something to smile about, if only for a second.
“When you jump in and help as a group, doing something other than playing football, it changes you a little. You always feel good about winning – there’s nothing like winning. But when you help people, that’s a different kind of winning feeling.”