Of the five boroughs that make up New York City, the one hardest to bring into focus is Staten Island. The only thing most people know about this obscure outpost is that the ferry goes there from the tip of Manhattan and that the trip costs a nickel. Well, it's a quarter now.
Even Staten Islanders refer to their home as the Lost Borough. Though the 60.6-square-mile island became part of New York City in 1898, it hasn't ever really seemed to be a part of it. For one thing, Staten Island is a lot closer to New Jersey than to either Brooklyn or Manhattan. For another, until the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge to Brooklyn was built in 1964, residents had to embark on a sea voyage to get to any of the other boroughs directly. And the borough is home to the Fresh Kills landfill, the world's largest garbage dump, which grows in size with daily bargeloads of refuse collected from the four other boroughs. Sniffs one Staten Islander, "We'd really have an inferiority complex if it weren't for the Bronx."
Thus it is fitting that Wagner College, home of the Seahawks, the nation's best Division III football team last season, sits perched atop Staten Island's Grymes Hill. As with the island itself, few seem to know precisely where or what Wagner College is. Even Seahawk coach Walt Hameline says, "When I think of New York City. I think of good Italian restaurants, the Empire State Building, the bright lights. I don't think of Division III college football."
Indeed, New York City is not exactly a great college football town in any division: Columbia, the city's lone Division I-AA entry, is in the midst of a 41-game losing streak. For bona fide glory, you would have to go back to 1936, when Fordham's Seven Blocks of Granite were solid headline news, or 1947, when Columbia upset undefeated Army.
What makes the Wagner story so appealing is that the Seahawks have risen from obscurity to become the best of the 210 schools that play football in Division III. From 1927, when Wagner started its football program, to 1979, the team never had more than four winning seasons in a row. Since 1980, the Seahawks have run off eight straight winners. Hameline's seven-year record at Wagner is 62-13-2, including last season's 13-1. "We have proved that anything is possible in a lifetime if you want it to be," says the Seahawk coach.
Still, before last year, the Seahawks had made the Division III playoffs in only two seasons, 1980 and 1982, and both times they lost their first game. No way were they going to be a threat to Augustana (Ill.), national champ the previous four years and a team with a 17-4 playoff record, or Wittenberg, the winningest Division III school of all with 504 victories. But in last fall's playoffs, Wagner beat Rochester, Fordham and Emory & Henry. Then, in the Stagg Bowl in Phenix City, Ala., on Dec. 12, the Seahawks destroyed Dayton 19-3 for the championship, prompting losing coach Mike Kelly to confess. "Truthfully, we should have lost by more than we did."
The secret to Wagner's success may be that it has exactly the proper spirit. So proper that a general admission ticket to a game at Fischer Field costs $5, hot dogs are two for the price of one at the start of the fourth quarter, and parking is free. Free parking in New York City
. "All you have to do to succeed is get out there and hustle," says Hameline. "And if you're enthusiastic, something good will happen down the line."
Which sounds just like what a big-time coach would say. In fact, Hameline—who it is feared will soon leave Wagner for brighter lights—is shrewder than that. First, he and his staff hustle to find players whom nobody has any interest in—after all, Division III is the last stop for a football player before the couch in front of the TV. Second, the Seahawk coaches have to convince these athletes what a good deal it is for them to pay their own way through college. And what fun it is to play football in front of a couple of thousand fans—no TV, of course—on Fischer Field, a sorry slab of turf that would embarrass most high schools. And what a thrill it is to play for a school that has sent only one player, Rich Kotite, now offensive coordinator for the New York Jets, to the NFL. Says Kotite, who played tight end for the New York Giants and the Steelers before retiring after the 1972 season, "Wagner winning the championship is like Rocky Balboa knocking out Apollo Creed."
In his cramped little office in Sutter Gym, Hameline reveals the Seahawks' secret formula: "What we offer is the opportunity to play every week." The coach knows that little boys take up football when they are eight years old for one reason: to have fun. To this end, no player is ever cut at Wagner: Hameline has a junior varsity, and those who don't play in the big game Saturday get to play with the jayvee on Sunday. The Wagner jayvee goes anywhere, provided the opposing team pays for the bus. Usually, that means Nassau Community College on Long Island, Columbia in Manhattan, Villanova and Lafayette in Pennsylvania. It makes a lot of sense to the player who has sat on the bench game after game. It also makes sense to anyone who has practiced football, which is the pits, but then played in games, which is a special glory.
And Wagner won the national championship on a shoestring. In these days of $100 helmets, the Seahawks' annual football budget, including salaries, is less than $125,000. "Theater, choir, band, the newspaper are what really round out a campus," says former school provost C. Carlyle Haaland, who left Wagner on July 1. "And football is also a very large part of the equation. This is still the play-for-fun division. So we think the players should have a good time, then go on to something else when they are 22. Maybe become a lawyer or actor or anything, have a good career, and play a little touch football in the park on Sunday. What we do is help the students see the possibilities in their lives."