It turns out that following high school football is an excellent way to see New York. This is mainly a function of logistics. A typical high school field—taking into account room for end zones and sidelines and bleachers—covers somewhere around 80,000 square feet. Needless to say, in Manhattan and your closer-in outer-borough neighborhoods, that kind of space is hard to come by. Which means that most any game you go to will involve a trip to one of the city's less touristed areas.
Local teams, then, are a well-traveled bunch. Some, however, do still more traveling than others. For instance, Williamsburg's Automotive High School. In addition to away games at John Adams High School in Ozone Park, Jamaica High School in Jamaica, Samuel J Tilden High School in East Flatbush, Christopher Columbus High School in Pelham, and South Shore High School in Canarsie, Automotive played four of its five home games this season at the Grand Street Campus field in East Williamsburg—a five-minute walk and three subway stops from the school. Even when technically hosting, the team still had to go on the road.
What makes this situation slightly maddening, as opposed to merely inconvenient, is the fact that directly opposite the high school sits McCarren Park—site of a recently resurfaced, well maintained, regulation-size football field; an obvious spot, it would seem, for Automotive's home stadium. The facility, however, lacks a fence, which the Public School Athletic League—administrator of the city's high school sports programs—requires for crowd control purposes. And so, despite having a field right across the street, the team has roamed nomad-like since its inaugural season four years ago.
There have been two exceptions. Automotive used McCarren in 2006 for its first-ever home game—a mildly disastrous production ("We came out and no one had lined the field. I'd never coached before. I didn't know the home team was supposed to line the field," recalls coach Haseeb Khawaja) that likely informed the PSAL's subsequent lack of enthusiasm for the venue. It also used the park this season, for its September 25th contest against Bayside High.
That most recent game was the culmination of several years of work by Khawaja and his players to convince the powers-that-be that, fence or no, McCarren could work as their home. As this season approached, their efforts became something of a local cause celebre, with outlets like The Brooklyn Paper chronicling the team's campaign and Borough President Marty Markowitz offering his endorsement. In late August the PSAL reversed its policy, announcing that Automotive would be allowed two games at McCarren—the Bayside match-up and a November 7th game that was ultimately moved back to Grand Street due to traffic complications related to the New York City marathon.
The September 25th game drew upwards of 300 spectators—around three times the fans a typical Automotive home date at Grand Street might bring. Parents and students and teachers crowded the field. Locals passing by drifted in to watch the teams play. "It was amazing. The whole track was lined with people," recalls Akeem Austin, one of the team's wide receivers. "Our fans, family, there were a ton of people behind us right here," says quarterback Stephane Dejean. "There were a whole lot of people watching that game."
In its first season as a varsity team, Automotive lost every contest, finishing 0-10. The following year it improved its record slightly, going 2-8. The year after that it went 6-3. In 2009, the squad went 11-1, its lone defeat coming in the league championship game.
This season the school jumped from the city's Cup Division to the more competitive Bowl Division. (High school football in New York works a bit like Premier League soccer with each school playing in one of three divisions—Cup, Bowl, or Championship.) After the Bayside game its record stood at 2-1. Three weeks later, going into a match-up against the Bronx's Christopher Columbus High, the team was a respectable 3-2 and solidly in the mix of schools chasing a playoff spot.
Columbus was 4-1 and coming off an 8-0 win over South Shore the week before. Inside the stadium the crowd ran about 150 people deep, all of them rooting for the home team. A thickset man in a Blue Steel hoodie sat at a folding table with a grey metal lockbox collecting admission—five dollars a ticket. Out on the sidewalk a handful of kids watched the game through the chainlink fence. "Make 'em eat dirt! Draw some blood!" yelled a man and a woman standing together at the top of the metal bleachers. "Hey 81," the woman hollered at one of Automotive's players, "come say that to my face!" What 81 had done to provoke her ire wasn't entirely clear. Such, though, is life on the road. Outside a woman stopped to listen as she passed by the field. She'd lived in the Pelham Parkway Houses across the street for seventeen years, she said. "Every Saturday I can hear them playing."
Columbus's pep band was tucked inside a baseball backstop, using it as a bandshell of sorts. Their leader, a short middle-aged woman in a black stocking cap was waving her hands, imploring her charges to slow down a song. The cheerleading corps bounded out onto the track, the dance team following them a few plays later. Jay-Z and Alicia Keys blared from a loudspeaker. Students in class sweatshirts with nicknames printed across the backs—"Smiley," "Empresso," "Pinkie," "Mustafa," "Gaza Kidd"—milled about in front of the stands calling out to teachers and friends they saw in the crowd. Near the end of the half a group of them took out a long paper banner they'd painted for the team to run through when it returned to the field from the locker room. It ripped in the wind as they unfurled it. They spent halftime with it spread out under the goal post trying to tape it together as other students laughed at them from the stands.
The most striking thing about a high school football game is the near-constant activity. Ostensibly the games are sporting events; really they're venues for conducting the business of high school, just along axes slightly off-center from the norm. It's a space where the classroom's constituents meet as civilians, where traces of the wider world make their way into the schoolyard. Teachers in their casual clothes tease students about missing homework assignments; students tease their teachers about the ratty jeans they're wearing; alumni home for the weekend tell their old coaches stories about life at college; parents catch up with one another; ex-players swap strategies for the offensive line.
"You know that this is your house," Austin says. "Instead of going to other peoples' house and trying to prove something there, you have your own house where you don't have to prove nothing. You can just play and have fun."
"House" is a metaphor, of course. As, for that matter, is the "home" in home field. There was, though, something in the unselfconscious easiness of the students as they bounced about the place that made it feel almost an extension of their living rooms.
Like old baseball parks—think of Fenway or Wrigley Field—the city's high school football stadiums are very much products of their neighborhoods. They sit pinched and crowded by their surroundings, at once interruptions in and manifestations of the streets around them—a situation that gives them a surprisingly strong sense of place.
Grand Street comes lined by a drab string of rowhouses, the block capped by a splash of pink and neon from the Bushwick Hotel. Out past the eastern endzone the narrow, treeless streets angle off into a warren of squat red and beige brick warehouses, church steeples poking the sky in the distance as the city slopes down and then upwards towards Queens. At John Adams there are planes, sighing metallically as they pass low over the field on their approach to JFK. The LIRR rattles by on a raised track a block away, passing behind the neat line of detached two-stories sitting opposite the stadium's stands. South Shore's field sprawls out into a landscape of parking lots and auto repair shops, men with vans filled with tools changing tires for drivers along Ralph Avenue. There's a baseball diamond attached, deep center and the thirty yard line overlapping each other as if part of some grand Venn diagram of high school sport. Yellow leaves from the elm trees at the edge of the grounds dust the artificial turf. At Tilden a gray cement wall, maybe 20 feet high, bounds the field, giving the place the feel of a small college stadium. It sits wedged in amongst tidy blocks of brick houses with brightly painted aluminum awnings, thick maples and lindens looming overhead. On Saturday afternoons cheering and the sounds of a marching band and umpires' whistles float out through the gates and onto Beverly Road.
McCarren, too, is an expression of its setting. The field lies amidst a patchwork of handball courts and softball diamonds on a block bordered at one end by Enid's and Bar Matchless and at the other by a row of glassy high-rise condos tossed up during the late, lamented housing boom—a fairly succinct summary, in other words, of the Northside in its current incarnation.
This isn't exactly what home field advantage is all about, but it's not entirely unrelated either. A home field, ideally, is a space particular to its neighborhood and the people who study and live there. A point of contact between the school and the larger community.
"There's not much of a difference, technically, but the energy is different," says Yaro Sterling, one of Automotive's defensive ends. "Most of our games, a lot of people don't want to come out to Grand Street. But when they heard the game was here at McCarren, we got a big turnout."
"We sweat and bleed on this field. We have emotional moments on this field. Everything happens right here."
The ultimate fate of Automotive's bid to make McCarren its field still remains to be seen. At the beginning of the season PSAL officials told Khawaja that if the games there went smoothly, the team might be permitted to use the park for the majority of its home dates next fall. By all accounts the afternoon was a success, but Khawaja says he has yet to receive a ruling from the league.
Automotive finished its first year in the Bowl division at 5-5, just out of the playoffs. As it happened, the team actually lost its game at McCarren, falling to Bayside 20-21 after coming up short going for two following a touchdown late in the fourth. To focus on that 0-1 record, though, is probably to miss the point.
"When we play at Grand Street we're playing on someone else's field," Dejean says. "This is more special. This is more ours. We own it."
"We practice out here every day, non-stop, ever since I've been here," he says. "It feels like our home. This is where we're meant to be."