For FDNY football team, disbanding after 9/11 was never an option
FDNY's football team, the Bravest, lost 22 members on September 11, 2001
Team never considered disbanding, though. In fact, team has only gotten bigger
Members will spend September 11, 2011, honoring the fallen in various ways
Because his beloved Cowboys have come to town, Steve Orr and his girlfriend, Amber Glispie, will be in Section 129 at MetLife Stadium on Sunday, September 11, to watch Tony Romo and Co. battle the Jets. But it will not be a normal football Sunday for Orr, a retired fireman who coaches the defensive backs for the New York City Fire Department football team.
Around 8 a.m. on Sunday, Orr will arrive at his old firehouse -- Engine 276, Ladder 156 in the Midwood section of Brooklyn -- for breakfast with the guys at the old station. At 8:46, as at all firehouses across New York City, there will be a moment of silence, marking the time when the first hijacked plane struck the North Tower of the World Trade Center. More silence will come 17 minutes later to honor the moment the second plane hit the South Tower. Then silence again at 9:59 and 10:29, when each tower fell.
The football team's head coach, Mike Stackpole, who lost 12 guys from his Squad that day and 22 from the team, will attend a morning mass for his older brother, Tim, an FDNY captain and a hard-charging linebacker who was in the command center in Tower 1 when the building came down.
Tom Narducci, the team's treasurer and a punishing fullback for nine seasons before he quit playing in 2006, will have brunch with 9/11 families, then visit the fallen at Moravian and St. Peter's Cemeteries in Staten Island before heading to the Jets game as a guest of running back LaDainian Tomlinson's Touching Lives Foundation.
The team's quarterback, Ryan Davan, will attend a morning memorial ceremony in Clarkstown, N.Y., before putting in a shift as a Rockland County police officer. Davan wears No. 10 in honor of Pat Lyons, the man who preceded him at the position; Lyons was killed on September 11.
Later in the day Orr and members of Engine 276 will travel to St. George Cemetery on Long Island to visit the resting places of Billy Johnston, Tim Stackpole and Danny Suhr, all of whom played for the team and were lost on September 11.
"We'll have some laughs, and a tear or two," said Orr, who played on the team for 16 seasons and is now its vice president along with his coaching duties. "We'll drink some beer with them like they were there."
Of the 343 firefighters who died at the World Trade Center, eight played or were on the staff of the fire department football team, including Tim Stackpole and Johnston, the team's dependable kicker. Fourteen more were alumni, including Suhr, a defensive lineman and a former captain of the team. They also lost their top two quarterbacks -- Lyons and Tommy Cullen. Lyons had come off the bench to lead the team to its final victory of the season three months before the towers came down.
Sports Illustrated profiled the team in its March 25, 2002, issue, the same year NFL Films produced the documentary The Bravest Team: The Rebuilding of the FDNY Football Club. That film highlighted the men who died on 9/11, including the legendary Durrell (Bronko) Pearsall, a team captain and offensive lineman. At 6-foot-2 with a frame that fluctuated between 230 and 300 pounds, Pearsall once played a Jets player in a Tostitos commercial. Along with football, he also loved music, playing snare drum for the fire department's Emerald Society band and singing Irish songs when the football team traveled for its annual West Coast game. One of his favorite songs was the Irish drinking song Wild Rover, and the squad performs the song after every game, win or lose. "It's a tribute to Bronco and all the guys we lost on 9/11," said Orr.
Any thoughts of disbanding the team after 2001 were quickly extinguished.
"All New York City firefighters are pretty much the same breed," said Mike Stackpole, head coach since 2004. "If it was me who was lost, I know I'd want them to continue on. We truly love the game, the competition and what it brings out in us. I know my brother would want us to continue to live life the way it should be lived. For us not to play anymore, it would be almost like the terrorists won. We play in their memory and tell stories about them so their memory lives on."
In fact, the team got bigger: More than 110 men tried out for the rebuilding year in 2002. The 2003 season saw another infusion of young guys; that year they defeated the NYPD 35-7 -- the biggest margin of victory in the 39-year history of the NYPD-FDNY series -- and went on to win the National Public Safety Football League championship.
"The big season for us was 2003," Orr said. "That solidified us again."
Ten years later, the team is stronger than ever. Last June the firefighters defeated the NYPD 3-0 in the annual Fun City Bowl and won the NPSFL championship game 23-15 over the LAPD Centurions.
Although the FDNY team is physically smaller than most of its opponents -- and often competes against players with Division I football pedigrees -- members say they win because of their pride, brotherhood and family atmosphere. When leaving the locker room before games, each player touches a sign that reads PLAY LIKE A CHAMPION, which once belonged to Pearsall, a huge Notre Dame fan. The sign has photos or Mass cards for every fireman who played on the team and was killed on September 11. The team also watches the NFL Films documentary the night before each game.
"There's a scene of a meeting after 9/11, showing the guys voting on whether the team should go on," says Davan, who played a year at Marist College. "I still get chills seeing it, even though I've seen it a hundred times."
After this year's championship game, the team gathered at the Tamaqua Bar & Marina in the Gerritsen Beach neighborhood of Brooklyn to pay tribute to those who'd come before them. Drunk on camaraderie, they belted out the lyrics to Wild Rover, a day to remember for the real New York giants.