Field test

For storm-swept Rockaway football team, a brief bright moment

Coach Victor Nazario had no shortage of material to draw on as he launched into a pep talk for the Beach Channel Campus Dolphins before their playoff football game on Saturday.

Less than two weeks before, the Rockaway Peninsula — home to Beach Channel and many of its students — had borne the full force of Hurricane Sandy. Since the storm, members of the football team, like so many others, had been camped out in cold, dark apartments or bouncing among family, friends, and hotels elsewhere — anywhere with power and heat and access to food.

On Thursday, Nazario rushed to organize a practice to prepare for the Saturday matchup, but he was not sure if enough players would show up. A day earlier, just 15 percent of Beach Channel students made it to the school’s first day in a new location.

Now, just before kickoff, Nazario looked around the Port Richmond High School cafeteria, the team’s makeshift locker room, and saw that he had enough players to field a team. His voice cracked with emotion almost as soon as he opened his mouth.

“Needless to say, the last two weeks have really tested our character and our resilience and, in my opinion, you guys passed in flying colors,” Nazario said.

Before heading out onto the field, Nazario reminded the players to relish their time on the field.

“We handle our business,” he said. “And then we go home to deal with the dark.”

Coaches Victor Nazario (right) and John Coscia hug senior co-captains Justin Zemser and Breland Archbold after their loss Saturday.

Darkness has been a resolute companion after sunset for the tens of thousands of Rockaway residents still without power two weeks after the storm. Cell phone service on the peninsula remains spotty, basic needs are in short supply, and traffic is clogged with vehicles from the National Guard and other organizations brought in to assist in recovery.

For the players, talk of “the darkness” is one part communal joke, one part shorthand to describe their new normal.

Seniors Marcus Wilcox, a co-captain, and Nkoze Stewart said the kitchen has become the most popular room in their apartments — not for what food gets cooked, but because huddling around an open stove is the only way to stay warm.

Junior running back Chris Reed and his family decided to stay in their 10th-floor apartment because his grandmother, who lives four floors above, didn’t want to evacuate. Reed said he’s spent the last two weeks shuttling supplies up and down dozens of flights of stairs for his family.

“At least you’re staying in shape,” Nazario told Reed by way of consolation.

“How can a carpet be cold?” said Michael Stanley, a junior wide receiver. Stanley had been been staying in East New York but slept on his cousin’s floor Friday night back on the peninsula so he could make the early morning team bus to Staten Island. “I’ve never felt anything like that.”

Stanley is one of several Beach Channel plays to have fled the remote, 11-mile-long Rockaway peninsula entirely. Senior co-captain Justin Zemser, a wide receiver, headed to Long Island after a gas leak in his apartment building forced all of the residents out. Star defensive lineman and University of Connecticut-bound Folorunso Fatukasi is living in a Brooklyn motel room with his parents and two brothers. Senior left tackle Roger Arrington evacuated more than 100 miles away upstate.

Of course, if Sandy never struck, the 12th seeded Dolphins (5-3) still would have been steep underdogs against the fifth-seeded Port Richmond Red Raiders (6-2). Port Richmond recruits from a student body of more than 2,100, but because the city is in the process of closing Beach Channel, its student body has shrunk to just 400. New schools in the building, whose students are also eligible for the team, add only 1,200 more potential recruits.

Still, the storm added to the odds against the Dolphins.

Nazario found out on Tuesday that the Public Schools Athletic League, which oversees sports in the city’s public school system, intended to move forward with the playoffs with or without the Dolphins.

Nazario had a choice to make: forfeit or round up players he hadn’t seen in weeks and ask them to take a break from their families to play the game.

But after he spoke with Zemser, Wilcox, and Breland Archbold, his senior co-captains, the decision became clear: The Dolphins would not cede the game to Sandy.

“We told [the coaches] that we’d get the players if they get us the equipment,” Wilcox said.

But the Dolphins still didn’t have a practice field. The field at Beach Channel campus was turned into a landing pad for emergency helicopters and Nazario said he cringed when he first saw what they’ve done to his 50-yard line. On Thursday and Friday, the team practiced at nearby Far Rockaway High School, which is located further in land.

On Saturday, 25 Beach Channel players suited up to take on about 40 Red Raiders in a contest that Nazario compared to the battle between David and Goliath.

“Everything that you’ve endured, it’s like ridiculous that you guys even thought about playing this football game,” Nazario said in his speech. He added, “Everything that we’ve been through for the last two weeks, winning this football game should actually be easy.”

In the Hollywood version of the playoff game, Nazario’s speech would have foreshadowed a come-from-behind victory over both Port Richmond and tragedy. But in real life, the Red Raiders jumped out to a quick 14-0 lead and never looked back.

Beach Channel gained momentum briefly in the second quarter. Archbold, the team’s star quarterback, ran the ball 80 yards for a touchdown to make the score 14-6. He had the Dolphins driving again when Port Richmond intercepted a bobbled pass and returned it  for a touchdown. The final score was 38-6, sending the Red Raiders on to the next round of the playoffs.

For Beach Channel, the loss marked the end of the season. After the game, Nazario cried some more, but this time he had company. As he gathered his team for a final sendoff, he thanked his players again for overcoming steep odds even to step on to the field.

Fatukasi told his teammates to stop crying, to be proud of their performance. Then he was wiping tears from his own eyes [VIDEO].

Spirits were higher back in the cafeteria. The players ate pizza — courtesy of Port Richmond — and basked in the last few minutes of fluorescent light and radiated heat.

“I wouldn’t have been able to live with that feeling of ‘what if?’” said Zemser, the senior. “At least now I know we had a shot at it.”

“Now we gotta go fix this town up,” he added.

After the game: “No more crying…We’re leaving this field with respect.”


call out

Our readers had a lot to say in 2017. Make your voice heard in 2018.

PHOTO: Chris Hill/Whitney Achievement School
Teacher Carl Schneider walks children home in 2015 as part of the after-school walking program at Whitney Achievement Elementary School in Memphis. This photograph went viral and inspired a First Person reflection from Schneider in 2017.

Last year, some of our most popular pieces came from readers who told their stories in a series that we call First Person.

For instance, Carl Schneider wrote about the 2015 viral photograph that showed him walking his students home from school in a low-income neighborhood of Memphis. His perspective on what got lost in the shuffle continues to draw thousands of readers.

First Person is also a platform to influence policy. Recent high school graduate Anisah Karim described the pressure she felt to apply to 100 colleges in the quest for millions of dollars in scholarships. Because of her piece, the school board in Memphis is reviewing the so-called “million-dollar scholar” culture at some high schools.

Do you have a story to tell or a point to make? In 2018, we want to give an even greater voice to students, parents, teachers, administrators, advocates and others who are trying to improve public education in Tennessee. We’re looking for essays of 500 to 750 words grounded in personal experience.

Whether your piece is finished or you just have an idea to discuss, drop a line to Community Editor Caroline Bauman at

But first, check out these top First Person pieces from Tennesseans in 2017:

My high school told me to apply to 100 colleges — and I almost lost myself in the process

“A counselor never tried to determine what the absolute best school for me would be. I wasted a lot of time, money and resources trying to figure that out. And I almost lost myself in the process.” —Anisah Karim     

Why I’m not anxious about where my kids go to school — but do worry about the segregation that surrounds us

“In fact, it will be a good thing for my boys to learn alongside children who are different from them in many ways — that is one advantage they will have that I did not, attending parochial schools in a lily-white suburb.” —Mary Jo Cramb

I covered Tennessee’s ed beat for Chalkbeat. Here’s what I learned.

“Apathy is often cited as a major problem facing education. That’s not the case in Tennessee.” —Grace Tatter

I went viral for walking my students home from school in Memphis. Here’s what got lost in the shuffle.

“When #blacklivesmatter is a controversial statement; when our black male students have a one in three chance of facing jail time; when kids in Memphis raised in the bottom fifth of the socioeconomic bracket have a 2.6 percent chance of climbing to the top fifth — our walking students home does not fix that, either.” —Carl Schneider

I think traditional public schools are the backbone of democracy. My child attends a charter school. Let’s talk.

“It was a complicated choice to make. The dialogue around school choice in Nashville, though, doesn’t often include much nuance — or many voices of parents like me.” —Aidan Hoyal

I grew up near Charlottesville and got a misleading education about Civil War history. Students deserve better.

“In my classroom discussions, the impetus for the Civil War was resigned to a debate over the balance of power between federal and state governments. Slavery was taught as a footnote to the cause of the war.” —Laura Faith Kebede

Weekend Reads

Need classroom decor inspiration? These educators have got you covered.

This school year, students will spend about 1,000 hours in school —making their classrooms a huge part of their learning experience.

We’re recognizing educators who’ve poured on the pizazz to make students feel welcome. From a 9th-grade “forensics lab” decked out in caution tape to a classroom stage complete with lights to get first graders pumped about public speaking, these crafty teachers have gone above and beyond to create great spaces.

Got a classroom of your own to show off? Know someone that should be on this list? Let us know!

Jaclyn Flores, First Grade Dual Language, Rochester, New York
“Having a classroom that is bright, cheerful, organized and inviting allows my students to feel pride in their classroom as well as feel welcome. My students look forward to standing on the stage to share or sitting on special chairs to dive into their learning. This space is a safe place for my students and we take pride in what it has become.”

Jasmine, Pre-K, Las Vegas, Nevada
“My classroom environment helps my students because providing calming colors and a home-like space makes them feel more comfortable in the classroom and ready to learn as first-time students!”


Oneika Osborne, 10th Grade Reading, Miami Southridge Senior High School, Miami, Florida
“My classroom environment invites all of my students to constantly be in a state of celebration and self-empowerment at all points of the learning process. With inspirational quotes, culturally relevant images, and an explosion of color, my classroom sets the tone for the day every single day as soon as we walk in. It is one of optimism, power, and of course glitter.”

Kristen Poindexter, Kindergarten, Spring Mill Elementary School, Indianapolis, Indiana
“I try very hard to make my classroom a place where memorable experiences happen. I use songs, finger plays, movement, and interactive activities to help cement concepts in their minds. It makes my teacher heart so happy when past students walk by my classroom and start their sentence with, “Remember when we…?”. We recently transformed our classroom into a Mad Science Lab where we investigated more about our 5 Senses.”


Brittany, 9th Grade Biology, Dallas, Texas
“I love my classroom environment because I teach Biology, it’s easy to relate every topic back to Forensics and real-life investigations! Mystery always gets the students going!”


Ms. Heaton, First Grade, Westampton, New Jersey
“As an educator, it is my goal to create a classroom environment that is positive and welcoming for students. I wanted to create a learning environment where students feel comfortable and in return stimulates student learning. A classroom is a second home for students so I wanted to ensure that the space was bright, friendly, and organized for the students to be able to use each and every day.”

D’Essence Grant, 8th Grade ELA, KIPP Houston, Houston, Texas
“Intentionally decorating my classroom was my first act of showing my students I care about them. I pride myself on building relationships with my students and them knowing I care about them inside and outside of the classroom. Taking the time to make the classroom meaningful and creative as well building a safe place for our community helps establish an effective classroom setting.”


Jayme Wiertzema, Elementary Art, Worthington, Minnesota
“I’m looking forward to having a CLASSROOM this year. The past two years I have taught from a cart and this year my amazing school district allowed me to have a classroom in our school that is busting at the seams! I’m so excited to use my classroom environment to inspire creativity in my students, get to know them and learn from their amazing imaginations in art class!”


Melissa Vecchio, 4th Grade, Queens, New York
“Since so much of a student’s time is spent inside their classroom, the environment should be neat, organized, easy to move around in but most of all positive. I love to use a theme to reinforce great behavior. I always give the students a choice in helping to design bulletin boards and desk arrangements. When they are involved they take pride in the classroom, and enjoy being there.”