Each year Hameline brings in some 75 students who think they are football players, a significant number for a small school (Wagner's full-time enrollment: 1,292, half of whom are women). Almost all of the players come from New York and New Jersey. Indeed, of the 48-man traveling roster that went to the Stagg Bowl, 44 were from those two states, one was from Massachusetts, two were from Connecticut, and one, linebacker George Camargo, was from North Miami Beach.
Oddly enough, location is one of Wagner's few advantages: Football coaches around the nation generally hate to recruit in New York State, and especially in New York City. The recruiters get lost or caught in traffic. And for some reason—perhaps because basketball is so dominant—New York City high school football isn't very good. But it's good enough for Wagner. Conversely, New Jersey is a hotbed for college recruiters, but the state boasts so many first-rate footballers that there are plenty of leftovers for the Seahawks' table.
It's an odd assortment that ends up at Wagner. Take the senior quarterback, Greg Kovar of Hazlet, N.J., who admits, "I never even thought about playing in college. I never even thought about going to college." But Hameline pursued Kovar, stuck with him (he was 0 for 2 passing as a sophomore), and last season the Seahawks' quarterback completed 56.8% of his 303 passes, including 22 for touchdowns. Kovar says the kind of player who comes to Wagner is one who "likes to feel comfortable." Wagner is like a pair of old slippers. Just put your feet up and look out over the Statue of Liberty.
Linebacker Artie DiMella, who had a whopping 149 tackles last year and who recently graduated with a degree in economics, says, "It has been a symbiotic relationship. I got an education and they got a lot of tackles." When DiMella was a high school senior in Clinton Corners, N.Y., he tried hard to get a college interested in him. "Nobody called me. Their loss. They missed out on a good student-athlete." But Hameline called. And called. When DiMella showed up on Staten Island, he was the Seahawks' eighth linebacker. He knew he had to get recognized, to stand out. So when the coaches said not to tackle the quarterback, DiMella tackled him; when the coaches screamed to stop at the whistle, DiMella kept crashing; when the coaches emphasized no hitting out of bounds, DiMella would hit far out of bounds. DiMella got noticed. "I'm not the best player; I just play with my heart," he says.
Which, of course, defines the Wagner spirit. "Our enthusiasm overcomes our lack of talent," says Rich Negrin, from Edison, N.J., a starting offensive tackle last year. Premier running back Terry Underwood of Cliffwood Beach, N.J., voices another tenet of the Wagner ethos: "I always anticipate my opponent being a little better than me." At Wagner, cockiness is bad form. Underwood, a senior who rushed for 1,467 yards last year, also is sensible about the future. "Football is just something I like to do. But when it's over, it's over," he says. "I look forward to other things, like maybe being an attorney."
Occasionally a big-time player falls into Wagner's lap—like defensive end Troy Henry, a senior from Staten Island who had scholarship offers from Syracuse, Rutgers and Temple. He chose Temple. But before his second year the Owls tried to move Henry to offensive guard, which meant he had to learn trap blocking and getting out on the corners. "For the first time in my life," he says, "T felt totally helpless on the football field." Henry came home and called the local school, Wagner. "Sometimes I wish I had come here in the first place," he says. "This is what college football should be all about."
Yes, it is, if only because the success of a college football program should not be measured by how many players it preps for the pros. Still, for those who persist in looking to the NFL for confirmation of greatness. Division III has its notable alums: retired All-Pro quarterback Ken Anderson played for Augustana; Seattle quarterback Dave Krieg came from the now defunct Milton College in Wisconsin; Ram starting offensive guard Tom Newberry played for Wisconsin-La Crosse; and Sam Mills, starting linebacker for the New Orleans Saints, played for Montclair ( N.J.) State. There are others. Just not a lot of others.
Wagner further distinguishes itself by maintaining a clear vision of its place in the college game. The school doesn't talk about playing Penn State in a few years; it doesn't talk about being able to beat Syracuse. Indeed, former provost Haaland says of Wagner's football aspirations, "I think we're kind of there. We will have fat years, a few really fat, and a few lean. That's about right." And that, again, is the perfect spirit for a school that, on a clear night, commands a spectacular view of Manhattan, the George Washington Bridge and New York Harbor. Having a great view of Manhattan just might be better than being in Manhattan. Perspective counts in everything.
"We do have the right perspective," says Hameline. "Football's a game. My goal is for the players to look back on their football here and say. 'It was a positive experience.' As long as the players play hard and with enthusiasm, that's O.K. Coaches care too much when they lose. Besides, when you lose, the cure is to win next time."
From atop Staten Island's Grymes Hill, another day is winding down. All's well with the ferry. And with Wagner. Even though the Seahawks have lost three offensive linemen (with 11 years' starting experience among them) and most of their defensive backs from the championship team, Hameline says, "I think we'll be fine." And that, in the long haul, is all Wagner aspires to. Which is fine.