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, huh, 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.
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
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
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.
Even if you can replace the players who were lost, how do you
replace all the other guys who made the team so damn much fun?
Tommy Haskell was the tight ends coach and wrote the team
newsletter. Mike Cawley set up the after-game beer parties.
Danny Suhr, the first fireman to die that day, was the
treasurer. Offensive coordinator Mike Stackpole lost his
brother, Tim. Linebacker Zach Fletcher lost his twin brother,
How do you go on when so many guys are dead that you can't even
retire their jerseys because you wouldn't have enough left to
dress the team? How do you play a game draped in sorrow like that?
Came the first team meeting, and the club didn't get anywhere
near its usual 60 guys. It got 120. All the lineup holes were
patched. Guys who had retired signed up again. Guys who'd been
asked 10 times said yes on the 11th. You cry together at enough
funerals, you figure you can bleed together on a football field,
too. One thing about firemen, they don't let each other fight
Talk about a comeback year. "You've got to understand," says the
team's president, Neil Walsh. "We all go to each other's
weddings, christenings, graduations. I broke your brother in,
and your dad broke me in, and I carried your son out of the
pile. We're all brothers."
Not long ago a third-grade teacher found the team's water
boy--Walsh's son Ryan--sobbing uncontrollably in the boys'
bathroom. "To him, all those guys were his uncles," says Walsh.
"He couldn't handle losing them all in one day."
Some holes are easier to patch than others.
COLOR PHOTO: DANA FINEMAN/SYGMA
You cry together at enough funerals, you figure you can bleed
together on a football field, too.