‘Looking Back, I am Glad We Played’

The soccer season started with a victory for the Peglegs of Stuyvesant High School. A crew laden with seniors and playoff expectations downed a troublesome rival from Staten Island within the season’s first sport, performed on the nice and cozy afternoon of Saturday, Sept. eight, 2001.

Three days later got here the terrifying tragedy that modified the world and left an indelible emotional mark on the scholars at Stuyvesant and their soccer crew.

Stuyvesant sits only a scant few blocks from the World Trade Center. So shut that the 10-story faculty constructing shook because the hijacked jets sliced into the dual towers. So shut that some college students feared they’d be crushed if the buildings fell.

“I remember so many of the moments from that terrible day and our struggle afterward to put together a season,” mentioned Paul Chin, a large receiver on that crew. “I remember it feeling by feeling, image by image. They are shards of memories, and they do not go away.”

Everyone on that crew carries them, added Chin, now 37 and an affiliate professor on the Relay Graduate School of Education.

“It’s been 20 years?” he mentioned. “How can that be?”

Think for a second about Sept. 11 and sports activities. How the tales advised most are these of the professionals or the collegiate athletes, large names on the massive stage, and their defiant, resolute return to motion. The Yankees and their run to the World Series. Mike Piazza’s homer for the Mets within the crew’s first house sport after the assaults. One of the primary large school soccer video games: Nebraska internet hosting Rice in a stadium dripping with American flags and unfettered shows of patriotism.

High faculty soccer, simply getting underway that summer time, performed an vital however less-heralded function in serving to an unmoored nation heal from its wounds. All throughout America — north to south, west to east — soccer seasons performed by little-known teenagers supplied consolation in a extra private manner than the World Series or Michigan vs. Ohio State.

Few highschool groups have been extra affected by Sept. 11 than the Stuyvesant Peglegs, who stay unusually shut even now. They attend each other’s weddings, have a good time each other’s new child infants, preserve group chats and fantasy leagues. Many of them confirmed up this summer time for the funeral of Matt Hahn, a beloved assistant coach who died in July at age 67. Paralyzed from the waist down, Hahn mentored the crew from a wheelchair.

A foolish picture of the 2001 Stuyvesant varsity soccer crew.

“He was so important to the kids at that time. His example meant everything to that team,” mentioned David Velkas, the crew’s now retired coach, who was then in his first yr main the squad. “Matty let nothing stop him from what he was doing and living his life. And with that in mind, we would not let Sept. 11 stop us.”

None of his gamers misplaced shut relations within the assaults, Velkas mentioned, however almost all noticed the devastation up shut. They scrambled with their fellow college students to evacuate from faculty. They headed north, generally sprinting, petrified of being hit by falling buildings or flying concrete.

They made their manner house — or within the case of gamers like Chin, who lived in Battery Park City, which have been uninhabitable due to the assaults — to the properties of family and friends members.

They questioned what was subsequent. What would turn out to be of their faculty yr, their beloved crew, their season of excessive hopes?

Stuyvesant, for over 100 years certainly one of New York City’s most elite public faculties, closed for almost a month. Its constructing turned a triage heart.

“For a while, nobody knew if we were going to have a season,” Velkas advised me throughout certainly one of almost a dozen current cellphone interviews with members of the crew. “We were in limbo. Other schools were playing in the city and across the country, but we were not. But we also knew that giving the teenagers on that team something to hold on to — that was key.”

The whole faculty quickly moved for weeks to Brooklyn Technical High School, the place the Peglegs practiced soccer within the morning and went to lessons within the afternoon. There have been no showers so that they modified in a store room.

In their first sport again in late September, they stood alongside their Long Island City High opponents for the nationwide anthem. That had by no means occurred earlier than. Velkas — whose spouse’s firefighter cousin died within the assaults — handed out American flag decals for gamers to affix to their helmets. The Peglegs misplaced, 42-14.

By the center of October, Stuyvesant’s roughly three,000 college students had returned to their campus. An terrible, acrid odor nonetheless hung within the air. The streets across the faculty had stuffed with checkpoints, barricades and cops carrying high-powered weaponry.

Football historically acquired brief shrift at Stuyvesant, which is thought for its aggressive teachers. But the varsity went all out in 2001 to assist the crew, recalled Eddie Seo, a decent finish that yr who now volunteers as an assistant coach.

Seo mentioned that officers organized buses to freight college students from all around the 5 boroughs to that yr’s homecoming sport at John F. Kennedy High within the Bronx. The Peglegs misplaced once more, however what Seo recalled most vividly was how the stands have been stuffed with what felt like a thousand followers as a substitute of the same old few dozen.

“I came off the field, and I could hear my friends in the stands saying, ‘Great catch, great play!’” Seo mentioned. “I had not heard that before. That was as good a way as any to heal from what we had been through.”

On the arduous season went. Key gamers sustained season-ending accidents. A number of give up.

The 2001 varsity captains Nick Oxenhorn (21) and David Olesh (89) with the varsity coaches, from backside left: Kevin Gault, Alfred Burnett, David Velkas and Peter Bologna. Credit…Courtesy David Velkas

Even earlier than Sept. 11, the Peglegs didn’t have a discipline of their very own. They practiced in weedy public parks throughout Manhattan. In the aftermath of the assaults, all of the parks had shuttered or have been unreachable however one, on 10th Street and Franklin D. Roosevelt Drive. To get there, the crew obtained permission to bus by a restricted space close to floor zero. That meant passing a large pile of smoldering rubble: the remnants of the fallen towers.

On every journey, the bus would cease, and staff in hazmat fits would hose it down with water. “Passing by the pile,” remembered Velkas, “sometimes we would hear a horn blow. The workers had found the remains of someone. We would be still, and I would tell everyone to be quiet.”

Some gamers prayed, he mentioned. Others sat stone confronted with grief.

A query should be requested, all these years later, and given the advantage of hindsight.

With our era’s elevated understanding of trauma and post-traumatic stress — and our information of how the nation rushed right into a disastrous struggle — was it the correct selection for Stuyvesant High, or any youth sports activities crew, to return to play so quickly?

“Does it make sense to have a team full of high school football players driving through the wreckage of 9/11 for practice?” questioned Lance Fraenkel, who captained Stuyvesant’s junior varsity crew in 2001. “Maybe we should have been inconvenienced and gone around. And maybe we should have paused the whole season. But I think it is hard to make those decisions in the moment, and looking back I am glad we played.”

The season, he mentioned, gave the gamers an emotional carry in a time of nice want.

When it ended, Stuyvesant’s report was 2-5. But after Sept. 11, profitable was not the purpose. Just enjoying was victory sufficient.