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

12/15/2010 1:00 AM |

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.”