Sports lifted spirits in the aftermath of superstorm Sandy

Long Beach High School after superstorm Sandy. Long Beach High School after superstorm Sandy. Photo Credit: Handout

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The gymnasium floor sparkles and there is a feeling of newness in the athletic facilities at Long Beach High School. Signs of the rampant destruction from superstorm Sandy a year ago are all but gone.

Nearly $2 million was spent in the district on new gym floors, new equipment, renovated locker rooms and storage facilities, and repaired playing fields, according to Long Beach athletic director Arnie Epstein. But, said Epstein, "I wouldn't for one second call it a silver lining. The gym floor is beautiful and some things are working better because they are less than a year old. But we had to rebuild and restore."

The images of what Sandy wrought last Oct. 29 remain vivid to Epstein and many other members of the community.

Epstein recalled that he wasn't even permitted to return to the school initially. "When I was first allowed back into the high school and into the gym, the floor had already been completely ripped up because of the water damage," he said.

"The boys' locker room and our equipment room are below ground. The water went down into the basement area, causing damage to just about all of our uniforms, all the offices, all the equipment, all the lockers, all the supplies."

Looking ahead, not back

While the repairs helped restore some normalcy, it was the sports programs that helped the athletes, coaches and community cope with the catastrophe.

"Football practice got everybody moving in the right direction," Long Beach football coach Scott Martin said. "It gave the kids a chance to get back to school, be around their friends on the team and not worry about all the things they lost."

Epstein estimated the damages to his school district's athletic program as $109,000 for equipment, $230,000 in supplies and $1.6 million to completely renovate six of the seven gymnasiums in the district.

Much also was gained, however. One year after the storm, football players from various schools related examples of lessons learned about banding together as a team and a community to help people in need, including those from outside their own neighborhood.

"The generosity of people outside of our community was pretty amazing. It was heartwarming," Epstein said. "I don't even want to name all the other schools or organizations that had fundraisers or sent in donations because I'm afraid I'll leave some out."

For Long Beach, immediate help came from nearby Oceanside and its football players. "We all came together as a team. We went to people's houses in Long Beach and helped them out," Oceanside senior football player Connor Johnson said. "Long Beach is coming back, but it's not the same yet. When we came back to school, there were kids who had lost pretty much everything right here in Oceanside. If any kid needed help, I just told them, 'Hey, I'm here for you.' "

In Lawrence, where the high school football team was enjoying an unbeaten season that would culminate in a Long Island championship, the bottom floor of the high school was flooded and sinkholes appeared around the building. High school students and athletes had to attend a middle school while repairs were done.

"We had a town meeting after Sandy and Coach brought all the football players together and he said, 'What do you guys want to do?' The whole team said we wanted to get through this together," recalled Lawrence quarterback Joe Capobianco. "A couple of kids lost their houses for months and stayed with teammates, and it brought us closer together. It opened our eyes to see what we could do for our town because our town looked to us. We were their last hope. We gave them something to do on Saturday, something positive, and they showed up to cheer us on."

Wanting to compete

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There were numerous postponements of athletic contests all over Long Island for a full week after Sandy, including the football games scheduled for the weekend of Nov. 2-3. In Long Beach, there was so much damage to homes and school property, and so many families were displaced, that it wasn't certain that the school's teams would be able to resume the fall sports season.

"The most important thing wasn't the teams and whether they'd be playing a game, it was the well-being of all of our kids," said Epstein, whose district had four teams -- football, boys and girls volleyball and girls swimming -- scheduled to compete in upcoming playoffs when the storm struck on Oct. 29. "We were contacting them, trying to make sure, as best as we could, that they were safe. Then we could go about fielding teams. All of the teams that qualified for the playoffs overwhelmingly said they wanted to compete, and they did."

Boomer to the rescue

The Long Beach football playoff game that was rescheduled for Nov. 10 almost didn't happen. "Right before the playoff game, we didn't even know if we'd have a football team," Epstein said. "We had to go into the community to find the kids."

All of the players were safe, but another huge obstacle loomed -- there were no football uniforms.

Into that breach stepped one of Long Island's most prominent former athletes, Boomer Esiason, who played for East Islip High School and lives in Locust Valley. The former Jets and Bengals quarterback, now an NFL broadcaster for CBS-TV and sports-talk host on WFAN radio, is well-connected in fundraising through his Boomer Esiason Foundation.

"After the devastation of Sandy and the pictures on TV and online, friends of mine wanted to help," Esiason said. "I told them, 'I know how you can help. We can adopt a football team.' We wanted a team that had a playoff game but maybe didn't even know where their players were. When they found out that Long Beach could put its team back together with our help, they all jumped in."

With contributions from Under Armour (for equipment) and Xenith (for helmets), Esiason said his foundation was able to outfit Long Beach "in about 72 hours. We got the players and coaches everything they needed. It was a quick collective effort.

"I felt bad for those kids with everything that happened. Even though they lost the game , they showed the indomitable spirit that all football players have. It was great to see. In all that devastation and negative time, we gave them a little solace and they showed us that the human spirit was alive."

Despite the devastation and destruction Sandy left behind on Long Island, Long Beach High School has risen from the rubble.

"Our kids were truly amazing in their resiliency," Epstein said. "The caring and concern of parents and coaches really was a tremendous show of inner strength by our community. Everybody responded incredibly well and we were shown tremendous generosity all over Long Island. It was inspiring."