But now there is a new team in a new Brooklyn. Thirty years ago the borough was a crazy quilt of ethnic groups living in communities called Canarsie, Bensonhurst, Bay Ridge, Greenpoint, Crown Heights. Each neighborhood was an entity unto itself: Jewish, Irish, Italian, WASP. They were drawn together by an outside world that always seemed to be laughing at them, at their beloved Dodgers and at that hilarious Brooklynese dialect, which Thomas Wolfe used so tellingly in Only the Dead Know Brooklyn
: "Dere's no guy livin' dat knows Brooklyn t'roo an' t'roo, because it'd take a guy a lifetime just-to find his way aroun' duh goddam town.... An' even den, yuh wouldn't know it all."
The Dodgers, who packed up for Los Angeles in 1958, weren't the only ones to take it on the lam. Between 1950 and 1970 more than 750,000 people left Brooklyn. The white population decreased by 25%, while the non-white population increased 250%. By 1970, to accommodate increasing numbers of disadvantaged blacks and Hispanics, CUNY opened its colleges to all city high school graduates, regardless of their academic ratings. The freshman class at Brooklyn, which previously had strict entrance requirements, doubled in size from 2,500, but while many students grumbled at finding their classes being conducted in a rented bingo hall, others looked around and decided to get a football team going again.
"Out of 30,000 students, the only ones who stayed on campus longer than they had to were the ones plotting to overthrow the registrar's office or lock up the college president," says Steve Rosenblum, now a Brooklyn assistant football coach. "Nobody cared about anything. They couldn't get out of here fast enough." So, along with fellow students Alex Scamardella and Mike Hill, Rosenblum petitioned the student government to raise $15,000 to start a football team. Soon they had 60 players—"We couldn't have beaten my high school team," says Rosenblum—uniforms, two volunteer coaches and one tackling dummy. One player came to games on his bicycle, another in his Cadillac. They once had all their clothes stolen from a locker room and another time found a skunk planted there. On bus trips they ate salami sandwiches prepared by a player's mother.
One year the coach-trainer, Bill Chisolm, who is still the school's trainer, offered to watch the games from the stands and let the team run itself. That's when the athletic department, which was beginning to take an interest in the team for the revenue it might someday produce, stepped in. It offered the coaching job to Vince Gargano, the very successful coach at Lincoln High School and a popular figure among Brooklyn team members who had played for and against him. It was not an easy choice for Gargano, a Bensonhurst native, but a successful college team in Brooklyn was something he wanted to see.
"Vinnie brought us credibility," says Rosenblum. "He also got good kids to come." And, above all, Gargano made the team into a winner, never caring that his original salary, $3,200, was cut by $3,200 in his second year, and now is a paltry $1,500, little more than half of what he earned coaching at Lincoln (where he still makes his living by teaching phys ed). Gargano assembled the best players he could find from among the thousands of city high school graduates unable to get athletic scholarships elsewhere or afford to attend one of the small private colleges around the New York area, seven of which have club teams that play along with Brooklyn in the two-year-old Met 8 Conference. It is not surprising that the Brooklyn players take the games a bit more seriously than the others and usually win: this year 36-30 over New York Tech, 30-6 over Manhattan, 50-23 over Fairleigh Dickinson, 40-9 over Iona. What the Brooklyn players lack in size and talent, they make up for with determination, pride and Brooklyn grit, which Gargano does not have to drill into them. A jarring 90-minute bus ride—already in pads—through Brooklyn and Queens, across the Whitestone Bridge and into the affluent Westchester hills of Pleasantville to play Pace on a Saturday afternoon is enough to stir the players' blood. "These kids have always been losers," says Gargano. "No one has ever given them anything. I think winning football games is the only winning some of them will ever do."
So now they are 7-1 and, with Pace, co-leaders of the conference. A year ago Brooklyn's unlikely championship season culminated with an invitation to the first annual Coconut Bowl in San Juan, P.R. Shocked by the invitation, which came a week after Brooklyn had packed away its gear after beating Iona in its final game, Gargano phoned some of his players. Tackle Phil Katz thought the coach was going to accuse him of stealing equipment. When Gargano asked him if he wanted to play another game, he said, "Another game? Ah, jeez." When Gargano mentioned Puerto Rico, Katz' attitude changed—until he reported to practice and found that the coach's training regimen included workouts in the dusty 100� furnace room in the basement of Roosevelt Hall.
Once in San Juan, the Kingsmen made headlines by demolishing, in order, Inter-American University 50-12 and the Army barracks at Fort Buchanan, where they were billeted—$151.94 worth.
The latter did not make the sort of headline Brooklyn College and CUNY crave, ARMY VS. BROOKLYN COLLEGE FOOTBALL: A $151.94 BILL reported The New York Times. The accompanying article included the text of a letter written by Colonel Josiah A. Wallace Jr., the post commander, that said the team had "destroyed" sheets, pillows and mattresses, burned clothing in an oven, "littered garbage throughout the area" and kept neighboring families awake with "a continuing stream of obscenities and profanity until after three o'clock in the morning." Dr. Charles Tobey, the Brooklyn athletic director, was quoted as saying the charges were "a tremendous exaggeration" and "blatantly untrue." The Brooklyn players not only admit that every word in the letter is true, but they relish the retelling of the entire crazed affair.
This season Brooklyn has one of the best teams in its history at one of the worst of times. The nearly fatal financial collapse of last May, coupled with CUNY's undergraduate enrollment that has surged past 270,000, have forced every Brooklyn student to come up with $482 (upperclassmen) or $325 (underclassmen) per semester; and to reenroll for next year they must maintain a C average. The college has cut $13 million from its budget, eliminated 360 teaching positions and 850 course sections. The physical education department, in which 50% of the football players take their major, was the hardest hit. Though Brooklyn still plays mostly club teams, this year it achieved varsity status. But there is no full-time publicity man, there are no secretaries, and no one to sweep the cigarette butts off the AstroTurf. The six assistant coaches, some of whom are laid-off teachers, split $4,700.
For the players, finding courses in which to enroll to maintain their eligibility is only one of the problems. There are no scholarships; they receive no special tutoring; their training table is a corner at McDonald's; they must buy their own shoes (some can only afford sneakers), socks, jocks, towels, soap and things like forearm and elbow pads; they wash their own uniforms and take them home every night, because the locker room keeps getting broken into; they get around by bus or subway; they get no spending money. Almost all of them have jobs. They are janitors, mail sorters, bookkeepers, busboys and bouncers. One player, Donald Nissen, a starting guard, works as an auditor on Wall Street midnight to eight five days a week, bounces on weekends, carries a full class load and never misses a practice. "That's animal," says a teammate. And none of the players understands why no one watches them play, especially since tickets are only $3, $2 for students. "What the hell else is going on in Brooklyn on a Friday night?" they ask. Even the Brooklyn College paper did not cover the team until this season. "That ain't surprising," says Defensive Tackle Joe Macchia, "because nobody knew there was a paper, either."