On the Road with Brooklyn’s Homeless High School Football Team

12/15/2010 1:00 AM |

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.