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THE NATION

N.Y. Firefighters Find Faith, Fealty in Football

Sept. 11: Despite grief, they kept playing. To quit would be to give in to terrorism.

June 23, 2002|MICHAEL LUO | ASSOCIATED PRESS WRITER

NEW YORK — With game time approaching, Coach Sterling Alves asked the reporters in the locker room to leave.

About 80 large men, New York firefighters suited up this day for football, gathered in a semicircle around him. Alves, a 23-year fire department veteran, kept his remarks brief. He told them to play hard but to be proud whether they won or lost.

They were there, he said, because fans wanted to honor them as firefighters, not football players.

"It doesn't take much courage to play a football game," he said. "It takes courage to be on the 40th floor of tower one, when you know tower No. 2 just came down."

As the players filed out, they reached up to touch a replica of the "Play Like a Champion Today" sign, from Notre Dame, which hung over the doorway. It once belonged to Durrell "Bronko" Pearsall of Rescue 4, a team captain last year. Now, it was decorated with 22 memorial cards and photos, including Pearsall's.

Some players just slapped the bottom of the sign for luck; others picked out individual faces to touch more reverently.

It helped -- knowing they were playing for their lost brethren.

*

On Sept. 11, Engine 216 from Williamsburg, Brooklyn, rolled up to the World Trade Center soon after the second plane hit.

One of the firefighters who jumped off was Danny Suhr, a 5-11, 250-pound linebacker who manhandled blockers for 11 seasons on the team.

"I always looked up to him," said Steve Orr, a childhood friend who was a team co-captain with Suhr.

But Suhr became the department's first casualty. As he rushed toward the north tower lobby, he was struck by a falling body.

Orr couldn't believe it. He went looking for Suhr's younger brother, Chris, also a firefighter. He ran into Mike Stackpole of Squad 1, the team's defensive coordinator. Orr had grown up on the same block as Mike Stackpole and his older brother, Timothy, a department captain who'd played football as well.

"I lost Timmy," Mike Stackpole told him.

Orr was reeling. "The first two people I heard were killed [I'd known] my whole life," he said later.

As the day progressed, FDNY players compiled mental lists of missing teammates.

Among them: Pearsall, an offensive lineman and the team jokester; Pat Lyons of Squad 252, a quarterback and the team's fiercest competitor; Tarel Coleman, also in 252, a defensive back; Tommy Cullen of Squad 41, a quarterback; Tommy Foley of Rescue 3, a defensive back and once one of People Magazine's "Sexiest Men Alive"; Keith Glascoe of Ladder 21, a tight end who'd nearly made the Jets; and Billy Johnston of Engine 6, the team's kicker.

*

Within the FDNY, there are firehouse softball and basketball teams. Rugby, lacrosse and boxing enthusiasts have clubs. Then there are the department-wide teams in baseball, hockey and football, which match up against police and fire teams across the country.

Of all the department's teams, football suffered the most grievous losses on Sept. 11. Of the 343 firefighters lost, seven were active players and 15 were alumni.

Most of the lost players were members of the department's elite rescue and emergency squads. Football players, agile, tough and aggressive, are perfect for such units.

Suhr's funeral was the first. Pudgie Walsh, the team's founder and coach for almost three decades, called him "a man's man."

Bronko Pearsall's service was probably the largest. Pearsall had been the team's biggest personality, leading his teammates after every game in singing "The Wild Rover," a joyous Irish drinking song.

Hundreds of firefighters lined Fifth Avenue as his coffin was marched into St. Patrick's Cathedral. Linebacker Mike Meyers told mourners that Bronko, a devoted Notre Dame fan, had played like a champion on Sept. 11.

In the weeks that followed players attended so many more services, often as a team. Football didn't seem to matter.

At Tommy Foley's funeral, a group of players found themselves together outside a packed church. Orr told his teammates that he didn't want to play anymore. Coming from such a fiery competitor, it might have sounded strange. But they understood.

*

As the military campaign in Afghanistan geared up in October, a resolve began to form. Not playing would be like surrender, said Woody McHale, 39, a fire marshal and the senior man on the team with 13 seasons.

"Somebody shook our tradition," said McHale, a muscular 270-pound tackle, one of the team's most emotional players. "Somebody came in here and tried to change our way of life.... So playing football is like thumbing our noses at them."

On Oct. 28, at a Knights of Columbus Hall in Queens, players and alumni assembled. It had been almost 30 years since Pudgie Walsh, a firefighter and semipro coach, first got a call from a police officer friend, asking if he'd like to organize a game between departments. Now they were deciding whether the team would continue.

No vote was really necessary.

"It's not an option," said Alves later. "It's almost like a responsibility."

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