The 99 Yarder: a Brooklyn Story by Philip A. Farruggio

by Philip A. Farruggio
Featured Writer
Dandelion Salad
26 June, 2010

The skinny legged wide receiver with 4.7 speed (fast for a white guy in 1970), was running like “a thief from a grocery store” down the sidelines. It was a late Saturday morning in October. The pale blue cloudless sky suspended the sunny brilliance of this “Indian Summer” day. Such a contrast to the dirt brown city grass and the fire engine red of his uniform. His hands cradled the pigskin tucked close to his body. The only sound he could hear was the wind whistling through his sweaty helmet. The poorly arranged yard lines, white chalked like some giant checkerboard, passed below him rhythmically. In the distance, an empty end zone. His heart and mind raced along with his legs.

To ponder back at one’s youth, like leafing through pages of a history book – so many trapped memories escape. 1970 was one of the key years in my life. I was a ‘ stay at home ‘ college student, residing in Brooklyn, NY, “3rd largest city” in the whole US of A. We all inhaled an air of uneasiness, as this thing called Vietnam was sucking both our energy and our spirit. Friends and acquaintances from my Ave U neighborhood would disappear, then suddenly reappear in their dress blues, and then vanish once again – some never to return alive. Tommy L and Vito P. were two such young men. Tommy’s mom was the crossing guard by St. Edmunds church, who always greeted us after Sunday mass with such a joyous smile. After Tommy was killed, this poor woman carried that Mona Lisa look on her face. Vito P. Was son of Polish immigrants- his dad was the superintendent of my friend David’s building on Ocean Avenue. After Vito’s demise on some nondescript hill in Vietnam, I watched his kid brother, wearing Vito’s old army jacket, drop acid and drop out. Many of the lucky vets, those who made it home physically in one piece, periodically escaped through a needle or a bottle. From our campus at Brooklyn College we protested “Kent State”, a catalyst for nationwide dissent against the insanity of Vietnam. The television coverage of kids our age were being shot down by, well, kids our age, motivated many of us to finally get involved. We acted! Forming a giant mass of energy flowing in one direction, we physically chased the military recruiters off campus, and totally shut down the university with a student strike.

Through this melee of hawks vs. doves, my only retreat to sanity was on the football field. 1970 was the first time since 1956 that Brooklyn College actually fielded a football team. After the years of Allie Sherman, BC’s last great pigskin hero (later to become head coach of the New York football Giants) someone at C.U.N.Y. (City University of New York) figured our school was fated more for the egghead than the jock. Yet, by 1970 we had secured the helmuts and the tackling sled along with a 6 game schedule- no easy task. Hats off to one Alex Scamaradella aka “Scam”, a hulking, confident freshman on a mission. “We’re gonna have a football team here within two years”, Alex boasted to me the very first time we met in late 1968. “How”, I asked? I had been nagging the assistant AD (athletic director) just weeks earlier, and he assured me “It’ll take years to get on another school’s schedule – you’ll never see it happen while you’re here, Farruggio!” “No way Jose”, as I sadly put it to Scam during our first conversation. I was so sure it wouldn’t happen that I began writing to division 2A colleges in hopes of transferring. I needed to play, and quickly. Alex just shrugged his very wide shoulder span (exhibiting a head too small for that body mass) and smirked “We’ll do it.” Well, with the help of a handful of other diehards, we hit the campus and secured the thousands of signatures necessary, and we got our team. If only Vietnam could end as easily.

Now where was I? Oh right, running down the sidelines carrying my “loaf of Italian bread” with but the whistling wind and a bouncy vision of the desolate end zone to accompany me. We were playing Stony Brook – actually the S.U.N.Y at Stony Brook, a Long Island team, so no love lost between us. The game was at Lafayette H.S. field. We had no home field; rather, the Phys Ed hierarchy would not let us use the Brooklyn College field. As stated earlier, it was another “global warming” October day, and Frank MacCahill, our head coach, benched me for some minor infraction. We were lucky to attract perhaps 40 or 50 fans, made up of mostly the friends and relatives of both teams.

It was early in the 2nd quarter, and I was still under Frank’s disciplinary benching. Our offense was nonexistent, and our fearless leader, QB Chuck Padolsky, was having a poor first half. Scam and the rest of the offensive line were not giving him much time, and Chuck seemed to be struggling. Gazing at Chuck, once again being helped to his feet after taking another terrible hit, my mind raced back to late August and our first official football camp. It was held at the Hotel Echo, a second rate Catskills Mt. summer getaway for those who couldn’t or wouldn’t afford the more elegant Concord, Browns and Neville hotels. We bunked two or four in a room, I forget, and whatever else, the camp idea worked – it did bring us closer together. This team was a a strange mix indeed for 1970 America. We were almost exactly a 50-50 split black and white. In Brooklyn N.Y., thirty five years ago, blacks and whites simply did not share the same neighborhoods (duh, what’s new?). We lived apart. We socialized apart. Once, during fall registration, I met this cute black girl on campus. We hit it off, and before you knew it, we were making out and holding hands, ever so discretely, by the hidden from view campus flower garden. She then asked if I would assist her with registration. I did, and she made the terrible decision to hold my hand, in full view of hundreds of students. The catcalls we both received, mostly from the black students, were astounding and forever hurtful. To add insult to injury, when some of my white teammates heard of the incident, their only query was “was she wild in bed?” A few of my black teammates wondered if perhaps now I could comprehend how a black man must feel when walking hand in hand with a white woman.

Back to Chuck and the infamous “Doug P. incident” at the Hotel Echo. We were into our 4th or 5th day of the one week camp, having just completed a rather lengthy morning workout orchestrated by coach Mike Hipscher. Hip, as everyone called him, was a recent Vietnam vet and full of vim, vigor and passion. One new player was Doug P. , a 6’2 muscular forward from the varsity basketball team. This guy was one rough and tough dude! Doug had joined the squad late into our Spring session with the goal of being able to hit people without getting arrested. No one seemed to really know him well, since Doug did not hang with college people- the hood was his turf. For some strange reason, he just did not like me at all. So much so, that once, in the locker room after a Spring practice, he challenged me to a fight. If it wasn’t for Bobby Pace and Mike Titus, two of my black teammates, I would have been toasted. That was then, and this was now, a sweaty August morning on an antiquated school bus that the hotel used to shuttle us from the main building to the practice field. After a long and exhausting workout, Frank and his coaches opted for Hip’s car, leaving the rest of us to deal with the overcrowded bus. I was seated next to Robbie Beiner, my fellow wide receiver and backup QB. Doug P. , up to this juncture, had seemingly forgotten about the springtime lockeroom showdown. Suddenly, he stood up and stomped towards me. “Hey punk, think you’re some faggot superstar with your white shoes and shit!? Right now punk, you and me, let’s have it out!” With that he took his helmet and flinged it in my direction! Beiner and I ducked as it bounced off a window and onto someone’s lap. My teammates, feeling zapped from the sweltering August humidity, wrestled some muffled sounds of protest. “Shut the hell up, all of youse – dis is between me and him! Dis is personal!!” With that he continued towards me up the tight, narrow aisle. A few guys stood up attempting to calm him and diffuse the anger, but he just pushed by them like a tiger through a wheat field. As he approached Robbie, my last buffer of protection, suddenly a voice, really a shout, came from the front of the bus.” Hey Doug, sit the HELL down now! You hear me, NOW!!” It was Chuck, our team captain, all 5’7″ of him, built like some brick shit house and standing there with only the large “S” missing from his chest. Doug, startled more than anything else, turned away from me and spun around to face Chuck. As our captain moved towards him, he shouted to Doug: “Dis is MY team and if anyone wantsta fight, dey fight ME first! You got that!?” Doug did nothing. He looked at Chuck, then glanced around, and froze. ” Now do us all a favor and just sit the hell down – EVERYBODY sit the hell down and shutta hell up!” Silence! Just like that. Chuck immediately moved to the top of my Christmas card list as Doug found a seat, mumbling to himself. Then, as if straight out of a Woody Allen or Mel Brooks film, our team manager jumped onto the bus. “Ok guys, mail call! Yup, some of you guys actually got mail. Lets see, ok we only got two letters. And guess what, they’re both to the same guy. Lets see, we got this one, addressed ‘To My Darling Quarterback’ and this one ‘To My fabulous Captain’.” And with that, everybody, even Doug, just cracked up – a team was finally beginning to take shape. We returned to the hotel, and things seemed to ease up.

Joy has no boundaries when unlocked from our memories. The rest of that fateful week upstate was just one pleasant vignette after another. Like sitting in Lee “Psycho” Greenberg’s Firebird behind the main hotel building, sharing a doobie while listening to “Closer To Home” by Grand Funk Railroad. Or talking to some old Bronx guy in the hotel lobby who advises me (in 1970, mind you) to “Put all your money in cable TV – its gonna be the thing of the future!” Or phoning my new girlfriend Louise back in Brooklyn (collect of course), and telling her how much I cannot wait to … well, you get the picture. Finally, joining in with Mike Blum on that old dilapidated school bus, as he leads us in choruses of “B is for the B in Brooklyn College… R is for the R in Brooklyn College…”.

As Chuck hobbled off the field, ever so gingerly, Robbie Beiner and I were standing together on the sidelines, our longish hair flopping around our sweaty brows, observing the action. Coach MacCahill had already ordered me to “Stay the hell out of my way… I’ll get ya in when I decide, not when you decide, Farruggio!”. Our offense punted after yet another disastrous 3 and out series. As our defense trotted onto the field (“So soon” yelps safety Malcolm Menchin), Coach wheeled in our direction and shouted those immortal words: “Beiner and Farruggio, start getting loose”. No need, as we already had our catch 15 minutes ago – but to pacify him we once again began throwing to one another. Our D, which had held Stony Brook in check up to this point, was getting exhausted – a usual occurrence when the O simply cannot move the ball. Stony Brook began to mount a long drive, hoping to break the scoreless tie. Then, as luck (or fate) would have it, we intercepted a deep pass, but our safety landed knee first, on our own one yard line. Robbie and I shot a quick glance over to Coach who offered “Just don’t do anything foolish Beiner” while staring solely at me.

Trotting onto the field at around high noon, Robbie rotated his head my way. “Some shit hah? Whataya figure we do to get outta this hole?” My answer, I believe delivered as we crossed our own 30, surprised yet did not startle him.. Beiner was made of tougher stuff than most guys I knew. He lost his father as a child, and his Mom raised he and his little brother Bernie all by herself, an anomaly in the 1950’s. I guess Robbie & I hit if off so well because the two of us weren’t afraid to take risks. And boy, were we about to!

We were now gliding across our 20 yard line. I quickly sprang my plan on Beiner, “Listen, the whole damn world is looking for a running play on 1st down. Screw that! Let’s come out throwin!” Robbie liked that. ” But what pass do I call?” I waited until we trotted past the Stony Brook defense. “Audible it – if my guy lines up outside of me, call the quick slant. If he’s inside or even with me, call the quick out. Just tell the guys you’ll call it on the line.” Beiner sighed, then gave his Cheshire cat grin. “Its gonna work- or we’re both F****d!” Some of the guys in our huddle, mostly the lineman, were somewhat insulted by Beiner’s (my) call. “Are you serious? ” , questioned Scamaradella. Offensive linemen are proud people, thinking it is their duty to get us out of any hole by using all their strength and courage to push the other team backwards. Dave Cohen chimed in with ” Yeah, come on, lets run the ball and get some breathing room before we pass.” Big Steve Salerno just sucked in his mouthpiece and nodded in the affirmative for our side – the only vote of confidence we would receive. So much for offensive linemen-great guys with guts and fortitude, but occasional tunnel vision. Beiner looked up from his kneeling position and slowly, almost sophomorically, repeated the call.. “All ya gotta do is give me two seconds, that’s it. Two seconds and we get outta this shit!” We clapped in unison, broke the huddle, and I began to do my ‘ mantra ‘ . This routine, which no one, I mean no one on the team ever knew about, was formulated the first time I heard the song “The Magic Bus” by The Who. The Daltry and Townsend rift “I want it I want it I want it” really got to me. It had this Zenlike quality, this intensity of purpose that I later juxtaposed into my pass catching routine. Each time I knew a pass play was called my way, I would repeat the rift over and over in my mind as I approached the line of scrimmage. Nothing, nobody, could ever stop me from catching that ball!.

There’s an interesting observation when you break the huddle from deep in your own end zone. An ominous feeling penetrates your inner being as you approach the line of scrimmage. So close to the goal post…. Not fun. Not anything we ever covered in practice. One mistake, any mistake, and you’re screwed! I trotted to my position at left split end – goodness how nice and cushiony the grass felt way down here (why not, its hardly ever assaulted by scores of cleats). The cornerback, no more than 18 years old and smirking like some punk kid, began checking me out. Did he know that I knew he could not stop me?

My ego, already swelled from all the catches I made our first two games, craved respect. It demanded that two defenders focus on me, not just this solitary kid who had no shot in hell of staying with me. No such luck – so I stood erect, the Lance Alworth of Brooklyn College (said I) as my teammates went into the standard three point stance. I made sure to keep enough distance from Salerno, our left tackle, yet likewise allowing enough room from the sideline.. Beiner would need it to hit me once he studied the wise ass cornerback. I stood erect, almost posing, with hands on hips, as I checked out the cornerback. He made his decision, his fateful choice, by positioning himself to my right, inside of me. I swiveled my head towards Beiner, so as to clearly hear the audible – hoping he saw what I saw. He did. The signal was delivered in code: Quick out! I then did something odd. I went down into a 3 point stance. Instinctively, I realized that I’d get better traction to make that sharp left ( right angle ) cut to the sideline from a 3 pointer. (If Beiner had called a quick slant, I would have stayed erect – no trouble to just ‘ one step it ‘ and angle in.) A surrealistic mood encompassed me, as perspiration from my long hair dripped down passed my eyes and nose – I could taste the salt as it found its way to my mouthpiece. Was this all real? Was it actually happening?

When you are running for your life down a sideline, vacant but for the desolate cold concrete stands that accompany you on your journey, crazy thoughts enter your mind. Thoughts about football, and how far you are going, what a record this could be, or the score, your team, the few fans ….. none of that! Christina N. From Pittsburgh. Visions of Christina N. were spinning through my mind.

Within four or five hours of the game I would be taking my first plane flight ever to visit 18 year old Chris N. in Pittsburgh, PA. We first met back in July in Virginia Beach, VA. My cousin Michael and I had spent the summer there, working at odd jobs to supplement our apartment rental. Chris arrived with her girlfriend and an older sister on a one week vacation. We met on the beach, hit it off, kept in touch, and now I was invited to spend a weekend with her family. If you had known Chris and how those green eyes merged with her jet black hair, perhaps you too would be thinking of her 4 or 5 hours, or 4 or 5 weeks, before a visit. She was gorgeous! (Her old man was a different story, however. He gave me the once over when I first arrived at their home. He stood in his backyard, this squat 5 foot 3 stocky Lebanese man, with a garden hose in his hand, washing his brand new 1970 white Caddie, with fins bigger than his arms. Looking me over like someone checks out a racehorse at a sale, he stated: “Why don’t ya get a haircut?”).

Fate can be a gambler, shooting out the dice as it does. The kid cornerback had just taken his shot, shook the shaker and rolled out his choice – and lost! He went for the gusto via a glorious interception on our five yard line. Alas, Beiner threw a perfect pass and the kid blew it. I reached out, caught the little piglet in full stride, did another plant and cut up the sidelines, and was off to the races. Breathing now became the music of motion, reaching a crescendo as I motored deeper into Stony Brook territory. The free safety, who had chosen an angle to run me down, introduced his heavy breathing melody into the mix. That’s what this adventurous play had come down to, him and me. As his breathing merged with my own, I sensed his presence ever so near, around their 15 yard line. My legs then went into some sort of overdrive and I did a kind of hop step, feeling his extended arms near my ankles …. he missed! Touchdown! I then did what I always did upon reaching the promised land: simply bouncing the crazy shaped leather into the turf and trotting back to my teammates. Some of our guys, the ones not too affected by this mid day oppressive heat, joined me in the Stony Brook end zone. Others, with our proud “D” leading the way, mobbed the field like Paris during liberation. “99 yards, 99 F*****g yards” shouted someone as they lifted me up like some conquering hero.

It goes without saying that we easily, from that point on, dominated the game, earning our first victory. Doug P., who was is street clothes (due to some police action the night before), even slapped me five and then hugged me – we all did it! “The 1970 Brooklyn College Club football team tied the record for the longest touchdown pass in history – 99 yards” was how our press release would read on Monday. Few, if any news services picked up on it – we were only a club team, officially not even part of the NCAA. Thus, the record meant, as my Jewish friends would say, “Drek!”. So what?! I became a hero to some diehards, took a shower, caught a plane and got the girl.

Ah, if only Jim Croce’s lyrics would come alive, and time could be kept in a bottle, like perfume, to be inhaled whenever and wherever one pleased. Alas, this moment is now relegated to but a warm memory of youth; a paragraph of a time that has escaped from this older and still proud history book. Brooklyn in the 1970’s. I wonder what happened to some of those great guys 40 years later, or if they even still remember those football times at Brooklyn College, including that eventful day. 99 yards…… we did it – amazing! What about Christina N. From Pittsburgh? What about all the other guys from our neighborhood who were deeply affected by Vietnam? Well, I recall a quote from Ringo Starr, when he was asked how he felt about the theory that the myth of the Beatles was greater than the reality. Without pondering too long, Ringo responded with certainty: “I’m inclined to leave them with the myth”!

Philip A. Farruggio is son and grandson of Brooklyn NYC longshoremen. He is an activist leader and free lance columnist. Since the 2000 elections, he has written over 150 columns, many posted on various sites worldwide. Recently, he is finding a home at www.dandelionsalad.wordpress.com, or at his own blog at www.opensalon.com. Philip can be reached at paf1222@bellsouth.net.

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