When we were in seventh grade, the Mays Landing Athletic Association started a Pop Warner football team. Bobby played halfback and linebacker. Though I scored often from my right-end position, I was a fraud, quick but wary of contact. Bobby was a real player. He lacked the speed to be a really effective halfback, but he was a deadly tackler. Sometimes he'd be lost in the pile—he was about five feet tall at the time and would never grow past 5'6"—but the opposing ballcarrier almost always went down with Bobby's arms wrapped around his ankles. When we were in eighth grade, Bobby was chosen to play in a Pop Warner all-star game in Florida, which to me might as well have been Saturn. Bob and Roxy Gasko, Bobby's parents, invited me along and paid my way, my first trip on an airplane.
The summer before our freshman year in high school, an all-star baseball team for which Bobby and I were picked made it to the finals of the county championship. I led off and played shortstop; Bobby batted second and played left. In the bottom of the seventh inning, game tied, I went to the plate with the bases loaded, one out. I'd never been so sure I was going to get a game-winning hit, but all I managed was a weak bouncer to third, and our man was forced at home. Up came Bobby. As I led off first base, I remember thinking: This is over. Sure enough, Bobby whistled a hard grounder past the pitcher and over second base, and that was that.
I did better in school than Bobby, but he always seemed mature in ways that I was not. When we were 11, we camped out in a small tent in his side yard and Bobby cooked scrambled eggs over a Coleman stove. I thought it was astounding, both the taste of the eggs and the fact that he had cooked them. When he led the exercises in Pop Warner, Bobby insisted that we put our hands out to the side when we did our push-ups. He called them "Army push-ups." I cursed under my breath—"Come on, Gasko, give us a break!"—but Bobby just smiled and did his Army push-ups.
He was loyal, resourceful, gutsy and competent, and if you put all that together, I suppose, you have the character of a soldier.
ELMSFORD'S Alexander Hamilton High is a three-story brick building built in 1929. It bears a striking resemblance to Mays Landing School, the grammar school that Bobby and I attended, right down to the BOYS ENTRANCE and GIRLS ENTRANCE signs over the front doors. Mike Arciola had started playing soccer in eighth grade, and he was a natural at it. He was Hamilton's co-captain his junior and senior years, a midfielder who sometimes moved to marking back when an opposing forward needed extra attention.
"Mike led by example," says Kevin Tilokee, the other captain, a strapping 6'5" 235-pounder. "I would yell at teammates, but Mike would just go and play their positions. He never gave up. After we lost in the sectional final our senior year and were riding back on the bus, I looked over and saw tears in his eyes. I was shocked. I wanted to win and all, but Mike? It was everything to him."
To someone who wanted to win that badly, high school baseball taught a lesson in forbearance. In the three seasons that Mike played for Hamilton, the Red Raiders never won a baseball game. Not one. And some they lost by preposterous margins. Mike Cerone, who had become a star centerfielder for Iona Prep, remembers the night he heard that Elmsford had lost a game 42--3. He called Mikey and asked, "You mean you guys couldn't even score one touchdown?"
As competitive as he was, Mike never blamed others for losses. "He might get on somebody for dogging it at practice, but I never heard him say anything negative to a teammate during a game," says Kevin Budzynski, Hamilton's soccer and baseball coach. In a dozen interviews with Mike's relatives, friends and coaches, each mentioned this: On both teams Mike would run extra laps so the slower players would have someone to finish with.
He was a cheerleader not only for his teammates, but also for his on-again, off-again girlfriend Maria Prestigiacomo, who pitched for the Hamilton girls' softball team. Whenever her games didn't conflict with his, Mike was in the stands rooting her on and boosting her spirits when she got frustrated. "The baseball and softball teams were extremely close," says Maria, "and Mike was the reason. He'd round everybody up, and they'd all sit in one section and cheer. We weren't that good, either, but Mike made it fun."