Talk about a rebuilding year. The New York City Fire Department football team starts its National Public Safety League season next week missing seven starters, 12 alums and two coaches. But the firemen are playing. Hell, yes, they're playing.
Says cornerback Mike Heffernan, whose brother John was among the Bravest who died in the collapse of the World Trade Center towers, "Somebody said to me, 'Probably not going to be a team this season, hull, Mike?' I told him, 'We'll have a team if we only have 10 guys. We're playing.' "
Most of the guys on the team have a nasty case of the WTC cough, which is what you get from digging week after week, up to 18 hours a day, and inhaling dust, smoke, glass particles, asbestos and, indeed, microscopic remains of their fallen comrades. But the guys are playing. "Damn right," says fullback Tom Narducci. "It's tradition."
But how? Forget about replacing the players. How do you replace the men"? How does starting cornerback Danny Foley replace the starting cornerback on the other side—his brother, Tommy?
Last season, if it wasn't Danny pulling Tommy out of the pile, it was Tommy pulling Danny out. "That was the most fun I ever had playing football," says Danny, 28, the younger of the two by four years. "We both played high school and college, so we never got to see each other play. On this team, we were always together."
After 10 straight days of digging through the rubble, it was Danny who found Tommy. One last time, Danny pulled Tommy out of the pile. "When we found him," says Danny, "it was kind of a relief. I promised my mom I wasn't coming home without Tommy—and I didn't. But a lot of families had nobody to bury."
Play football? How will they even get a play off? They lost their No. 1 and 1A quarterbacks, Paddy Lyons and Tom Cullen. It was Lyons who came into the game last May against the Orange County ( Calif.) Lawmen and rescued his teammates. They trailed 14-0, but he led them to a 28-21 win. He was good at that kind of thing. He was with Squad 252, along with cornerback Tarel Coleman, and his friends believe those two rescued a lot of people that day before the steel-and-concrete sky collapsed on them.
How do you replace tight end Keith Glascoe, who was so good only a bum shoulder kept him off the New York Jets' roster in the early '90s? Or big lineman Bronko Pearsall, who insisted on singing Wild Rover after every game, win or lose?
Who's going to kick now that Billy Johnston is gone? Everybody called him Liam because he looked so bloody Irish. He was automatic on extra points, which was a luxury. Hell, there were years when the Bravest had to go for two after every touchdown just because they didn't have a kicker. Then they found Johnston.
They found Johnston again three weeks into the digging. Heffernan was there, and he helped carry his teammate out.