"When Mike was a small kid, and I do mean small, the time came for him to play Little League. So Dad brought him down to the field under the 59th Street bridge. You had to see him in his uniform. When he came to the plate, he looked like a batting helmet with feet. As the pitcher rocketed fastballs by him, he just stood there, frozen. Because of his tiny strike zone, Mike was usually guaranteed a walk.
"Two or three games had gone by, and Mike hadn't taken the bat off his shoulder. This was just fine with the coach because it was like having an instant base runner every time Mike got up—a walk's as good as a hit and all that. But things weren't sitting right with Dad. He had brought his boy down to play ball, and that's what Mike was going to do. This one time, Mike was getting ready for his at bat when he looked up, and there's Dad looking back at him. In his sternest voice Dad said, 'Swing the bat.' That's all Mike needed to hear. He was never afraid to swing the bat again."
Bill's eulogy for his brother was a eulogy for an athlete, a firefighter and the mainstay of his family's life. When Bill finished, more than 1,500 mourners-firemen in their dress blues and old ladies in their London Fogs and city officials in their suits and clergymen in their robes—stood and applauded. Bill's last sentence was delivered straight through his grief: "Godspeed, my brother, my friend, my hero." Any of the Ladder 3 men could have said exactly the same thing.
You could print out a list with the name of every firefighter in New York City—the 11,500 men and women on the job today, the 343 men who died on Sept. 11—throw a dart at random and find an athlete. When you read the obituaries of the fallen firemen, you see that sport imbued their lives. They'd been high school wrestlers and triple jumpers; they'd played minor league baseball and semipro football; they were weightlifters and boxers. Like most New York firefighters, they worked two 24-hour shifts every eight days. They had, some of them, the luxury of time. They volunteered as coaches and trainers. They were fans.
The physical test to become a firefighter is grueling. The candidate lugs hoses, raises ladders, carries heavy dummies, climbs walls and stairs, pushes weighted tires, runs and, near the end, when his legs feel like Jell-O and he can take no more, he slinks through a long, dark, narrow, twisting tunnel designed to push him to the outer limits of frustration. All the while he's competing against the clock and against every other candidate. If he's not fit, if he's not strong, he has no chance. In 1983, the year Mike Carroll endured the test, three people died taking it.
Every New York City firehouse either has a Softball team or joins another house to create one, and the teams play in a crazy maze of fire department leagues and divisions, harder to understand than the city's subway system. Ultimately each of the five New York boroughs determines a champion, and the borough winners join three wild-card teams in a tournament to crown the city champ. A few firehouses, mostly in Brooklyn, are softball dynasties that maintain their winning traditions by pulling strings and recruiting new softball talent as it enters the department.
In winter, fire department basketball leagues flourish. So do hockey leagues. Nearly every firehouse has a basketball hoop and a weight room. There are clubs or leagues for bowling, boxing, cycling, darts, golf, rugby, running, shooting and soccer, among other sports. Large numbers of New York firefighters compete biennially in the national Firefighters Olympics.
There's an all-city fire department baseball team. There's also an all-city fire department football team. That team was decimated. Seven of its players and 14 of its alumni were killed on Sept. 11, including Danny Suhr of Engine 216 in Brooklyn. He was 37 years old, 5'11", 250 pounds, a box of a man, a linebacker. He died when a person fell—or jumped—from a tower and landed on him. Neither survived. The fire department's beloved chaplain, Father Mychal Judge, was killed just after reading Suhr his last rites amid falling debris. "Danny was the first to rush the quarterback," says his old coach, Pudgie Walsh, himself a retired fireman, "and the first to rush the building."
In the aftermath of Sept. 11 the fire department's athletic life has been all but suspended. The firemen didn't have their annual boxing match against the New York Police Department in September. The hockey and basketball leagues are idle. Nobody feels much like playing.
When the siren sounds, a firefighter gets a rush of adrenaline, as any athlete does. The "job"—the fire in progress—is an event. Spectators gather, and those who know something about firefighting (or think they do) loudly critique the firemen's work, second-guess it, make the officers crazy. Photographers come out. The firefighters work out of a playbook, the manual each of them gets as a probie, or rookie. As in football, everyone has an assignment.