Joe LoBello was supposed to be at football practice the day of superstorm Sandy, supposed to be getting ready for Baldwin's first-round playoff game against Uniondale.
Instead, LoBello and his mother, Angel, were huddled with their four cats in the second-floor hallway, checking the tide tables with a flashlight and watching in horror as flood water advanced step by step up their stairs.
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At one point, Angel wished she had brought her rosary up from her bedroom. Her 17-year-old son went to his room, found the rosary she had given him for his confirmation and handed it to her.
A little more than a mile away, not far from the Baldwin football field, teammate Michael Abrahams frantically was trying to reach his father. Abrahams had wanted to stay with his dad, also named Michael, at their home in Bay Colony. Instead, the father sent his family to ride out the storm on higher ground. The last text message the son received from his dad came a little before 9 p.m. It read: "Not doing good. In your bedroom. Water coming up pretty quick."
It will be more than three weeks since the night of superstorm Sandy when the Baldwin football team walks into Hofstra's Shuart Stadium to play Farmingdale for the Nassau I championship Friday. But the memories and fallout from the storm are fresh in all of the players' minds. Half of the team experienced flooding in their homes, and a handful of them, including Abrahams, remain homeless.
While Baldwin certainly was not the hardest-hit Long Island community, football has played a unique role in the town's recovery as it attempts to win its second county title in eight seasons. For the players, football has been a ticket back to normalcy, a reprieve from the daily talk of devastation and dumpsters and drywall. And for the Hamlet of Baldwin, it has been a much-needed positive in a very difficult time.
"Football does have a way of making you think that the world is still going on and our kids are going to be OK," said Cristina Schmohl, the Baldwin School District's public information officer.
Baldwin students did not return to school for two weeks after the storm. The Bruins had to play their first playoff game at Freeport because their home field still was underwater. And because emergency workers had been given the school's locker room in which to dress and shower, kids had to dress for practice in the parking lot or the cramped coach's office.
"It was really cold, but we were just excited to be back and practice," wide receiver Travais Hyltonsaid. "We were happy to be able to not think about the hurricane for a few hours."
It is hard to say exactly how many Baldwin residents were displaced by the storm. According to Schmohl, 80 Baldwin students are considered legally homeless, meaning they now are living outside the school district with friends and family and are being bused back into the district. That number does not include a number of students such as Abrahams who are living with friends and family in the Baldwin school district because they cannot get back into their homes.
Former Baldwin quarterback Steve Carroll has been the team's head coach for 25 years. Most of his assistants are longtime friends and Baldwin residents, and as soon as the storm ended, they began working the phones trying to find out what had happened to their kids.
"Thank God, no one was killed," Carroll said. "I know there are places that got it worse than Baldwin, but our kids have been through a lot. It's been a tough time, but this is a very close group."
It was supposed to be a special season for the Baldwin football team, one that Abrahams, LoBello, Hylton and the rest of the seniors had been looking forward to since they started playing together in grade school. The team was knocked out of the playoffs in the first round the previous two years but knew it had the talent to go far this year.
The team had its first taste of the bizarre when gunshots were fired and a 20-year-old was stabbed in the parking lot at the end of the third quarter of Baldwin's homecoming game against Hicksville on Oct. 12. The stadium was evacuated immediately, the game was called and Baldwin, which had been leading 33-0, was awarded the win.
The school was just getting over that incident when superstorm Sandy hit Jamaica and talk of it making its way up the East Coast began.
Rising watersThe LoBellos have lived in the same house north of Atlantic Avenue for 22 years and never had any problems with water. The first evidence that superstorm Sandy was going to be different came at about 5:30 p.m. on Oct. 29 when Joe walked across the living room carpet and his socks got wet.
"I knew then I had made a mistake and we should have gotten out," said Angela, whose husband, Tom, is a highway supervisor for the Town of Hempstead and was out working in the storm. Mother and son began to scramble to move what they could to the second floor.
"The eeriest thing is there was this green glow from the transformers exploding and you could hear all the cars frying as they were hit by the water coming up the street and their alarms went off," Joe said.
At high tide, the LoBellos had two feet of water in their home, and it was clear from the smell of it that the sewer had backed up. A little after midnight, mother and son waded through half a foot of water to where Joe had parked the car on higher land. The family lost all of its appliances and furniture on the first floor but has continued to live on the second floor of the house.
The Abrahams family was not as fortunate.
The elder Michael Abrahams had intended to leave his home after moving as much as he could to the second floor, but the water came faster than he anticipated. At one point, he remembers looking out of a second-floor window at a boat floating in his neighbor's yard. "I was going to jump out and head for that if the water kept coming," he said.
The water stopped rising before that point. With his car no longer operable, Michael walked through the water to safety at about 1 a.m. When the family returned the next day, it became clear it was not safe to live in the house. As they began sorting through their belongings, a group of Michael's teammates arrived at his house to help them.
It's that image of his teammates arriving at his house without being asked that has helped young Michael through the toughest of times. He'll carry that on to the field Friday at Hofstra and likely will continue to carry it long after his playing days are through.
"It's crazy when you think about everything that happened to us this year with the shooting and the hurricane," he said. "But this is the tightest group of brothers. When I'm out here, I'm happy. This is where I want to be. I'm not ready for it to end yet.
"We promised ourselves that our senior year was going to be something special. And that's what it turned out to be."