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The football season began with a victory for the Peglegs of Stuyvesant High School. A team laden with seniors and playoff expectations downed a tough rival from Staten Island in the season’s first game, played on the warm afternoon of Saturday, Sept. 8, 2001.
Three days later came the terrifying tragedy that changed the world and left an indelible emotional mark on the students at Stuyvesant and their football team.
Stuyvesant sits just a scant few blocks from the World Trade Center. So close that the 10-story school building shook as the hijacked jets sliced into the twin towers. So close that some students feared they would 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,” said Paul Chin, a wide receiver on that team. “I remember it feeling by feeling, image by image. They are shards of memories, and they do not go away.”
Everyone on that team carries 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 Sept. 11 and sports. How the stories told most are those of the professionals or the collegiate athletes, big names on the big stage, and their defiant, resolute return to action. The Yankees and their run to the World Series. Mike Piazza’s homer for the Mets in the team’s first home game after the attacks. One of the first big college football games: Nebraska hosting Rice in a stadium dripping with American flags and unfettered displays of patriotism.
High school football, just getting underway that summer, played an important but less-heralded role in helping an unmoored nation heal from its wounds. All across America — north to south, west to east — football seasons played by little-known teens provided comfort in a more personal way than the World Series or Michigan vs. Ohio State.
Few high school teams were more affected by Sept. 11 than the Stuyvesant Peglegs, who remain unusually close even now. They attend one another’s weddings, celebrate one another’s newborn babies, maintain group chats and fantasy leagues. Many of them showed up this summer 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 team from a wheelchair.
“He was so important to the kids at that time. His example meant everything to that team,” said David Velkas, the team’s now retired coach, who was then in his first year leading 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 players lost close family members in the attacks, Velkas said, but nearly all saw the devastation up close. They scrambled with their fellow students to evacuate from school. They headed north, sometimes sprinting, fearful of being hit by falling buildings or flying concrete.
They made their way home — or in the case of players like Chin, who lived in Battery Park City, which were uninhabitable because of the attacks — to the homes of friends and family members.
They wondered what was 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 City’s most elite public schools, closed for nearly a month. Its building became a triage center.
“For a while, nobody knew if we were going to have a season,” Velkas told me during 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 we were not. But we also knew that giving the teenagers on that team something to hold on to — that was key.”
The entire school temporarily moved for weeks to Brooklyn Technical High School, where the Peglegs practiced football in the morning and went to classes in the afternoon. There were no showers so they changed in a shop room.
In their first game back in late September, they stood alongside their Long Island City High opponents for the national anthem. That had never happened before. Velkas — whose wife’s firefighter cousin died in the attacks — passed out American flag decals for players to affix to their helmets. The Peglegs lost, 42-14.
By the middle of October, Stuyvesant’s roughly 3,000 students had returned to their campus. An awful, acrid smell still hung in the air. The streets around the school had filled with checkpoints, barricades and police officers carrying high-powered weaponry.
Football traditionally got short shrift at Stuyvesant, which is known for its competitive academics. But the school went all out in 2001 to support the team, recalled Eddie Seo, a tight end that year who now volunteers as an assistant coach.
Seo said that officials arranged buses to freight students from all over the five boroughs to that year’s homecoming game at John F. Kennedy High in the Bronx. The Peglegs lost again, but what Seo recalled most vividly was how the stands were filled with what felt like a thousand fans instead of the usual few dozen.
“I came off the field, and I could hear my friends in the stands saying, ‘Great catch, great play!’” Seo said. “I had not heard that before. That was as good a way as any to heal from what we had been through.”
On the hard season went. Key players sustained season-ending injuries. A few quit.
Even before Sept. 11, the Peglegs did not have a field of their own. They practiced in weedy public parks across Manhattan. In the aftermath of the attacks, all the parks had shuttered or were unreachable but one, on 10th Street and Franklin D. Roosevelt Drive. To get there, the team received permission to bus through a restricted area near ground zero. That meant passing a massive pile of smoldering rubble: the remnants of the fallen towers.
On each trip, the bus would stop, and workers in hazmat suits 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 players prayed, he said. Others sat stone faced with grief.
A question must be asked, all these years later, and given the benefit of hindsight.
With our generation’s increased understanding of trauma and post-traumatic stress — and our knowledge of how the nation rushed into a disastrous war — was it the right choice for Stuyvesant High, or any youth sports team, to return to play so soon?
“Does it make sense to have a team full of high school football players driving through the wreckage of 9/11 for practice?” wondered Lance Fraenkel, who captained Stuyvesant’s junior varsity team 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 said, gave the players an emotional lift in a time of great need.
When it ended, Stuyvesant’s record was 2-5. But after Sept. 11, winning was not the point. Just playing was victory enough.