It’s been six months since Hurricane Sandy throttled the East Coast, causing more than $70 billion in damage in the U.S. and killing more than three dozen people in New Jersey alone. For many of those displaced by the storm, life still hasn’t gotten back to normal. So when Rutgers took the field for its annual spring game Saturday afternoon at High Point Solutions Stadium, Sandy relief was the focus from the outset.
Fans attending the game were asked to make a $5 donation to the Sandy New Jersey Relief Fund when they entered the stadium, and a majority of the announced crowd of 21,000 obliged. The Scarlet Knights players also wore special "R Strong" helmets, as well as custom jerseys with the name of a town on the back, each representing one city impacted by the storm. Those jerseys were later signed and presented to leaders of each affected area.
But the stars of the game were the kids — 16 of them, all affected personally by Hurricane Sandy, who took the field alongside the players for the final five minutes of the fourth quarter for a once-in-a-lifetime flag football game.
The experience was the brainchild of Rutgers second-year coach Kyle Flood, and was executed through the team’s Facebook page, where the school asked children impacted by the storm to submit essays or photos describing their experiences.
“Some of these kids are still without homes, and this is kind of a couple-hour respite where they can get away from that,” said Drew Robinson, Rutgers’ director of branding, who helped organize the event. “This was an opportunity to take their mind off things. … You kind of get goose bumps knowing that these kids are going to have the experience of a lifetime.”
Austin Celiberti was one of the kids participating in the game. The 10-year-old from Neptune, N.J., just off the Shark River Inlet, his 8-year-old sister, Sierra, and his mom and dad, Lori and Chris, spent two months bouncing from house to house after a 17-foot tidal surge flooded the bottom floor of their home.
There’s still work to be done before things can get back to normal, but Saturday’s game provided a nice distraction from the hardship of a long winter.
“He goes to football camp here and he’s always dreamed about playing at Rutgers, and just to see Rutgers do something like this is tremendous,” Chris Celiberti said. “We’re one of the fortunate families to be back in our house, pretty much, but to do this kind of makes the last six months feel insignificant, because this is the outcome for him.
“Being away from home, they didn’t have any of the things they were used to. They weren’t in the house they were used to, and we were in very small quarters. They lost everything: all their toys, all their video games, their TV, their clothes in the washroom. Everything was gone.”
For Liam Poland, who turns 14 on Monday, “home” is still a one-bedroom apartment that he shares with his twin sister Payton and his mom, Mary. The Poland family was forced to the second floor of their Brick, N.J., home by Sandy’s floodwaters and has yet to return. The family says a dispute with the insurance company has prevented any work from being done on the house.
“It’s tough for them, because they go to school and there are a lot of kids in school … whose lives weren’t changed at all,” said Liam’s father, Bill. “But now Liam and Payton, they go back to school, and their whole world was turned upside down. So it’s hard in the sense that they want to be normal, they want to do their everyday thing, but at the end of the day, they’re still going back to a one-bedroom, cramped apartment.”
But at least now when Liam, an all-star in his youth football league, returns to school Monday, he’ll have something those other kids don’t: the story of the time he played on the field at Rutgers.
“As parents, we were worried about them slipping in school and that kind of thing, and using the storm as an excuse,” Bill Poland said. “But that hasn’t happened at all. They’ve maintained. It hasn’t stopped them, and I give them a lot of credit to persevere like that through all this ridiculousness.”
Fourteen-year-old Khashawn Decker and his mom, Khalida, had to leave their Hoboken apartment for a month after Sandy hit. Khashawn’s uncle told him about the opportunity on the Rutgers Facebook page, and after writing about his experience, he was selected to play in the game.
“I had to leave my house for weeks, everything was flooded, and we lost everything,” Khashawn said. “I had to pick myself up and grow stronger than I ever did before. It was a bad experience and something I never want to have to go through again.”
It was a good thing they picked him, too, because Decker and his close friend Kyeise Lopez, also of Hoboken, were the stars of Saturday’s scrimmage — where they were at times tough to differentiate from the Rutgers players who joined them on the field.
“It was the most exciting five minutes of the game, with all the kids making plays and going crazy,” said James Monaco, a family friend and computer teacher at Connors Elementary School, which lost its entire ground floor during Sandy. “It couldn’t have gone any better. It was an amazing idea and amazing execution by Rutgers.”
Added Decker, a youth league star who said he hopes to play college football: “It felt good to come out here and show people the type of skills I’ve got and to have the crowd cheer for me.”
The majority of kids at Saturday’s game came from Asbury Park, N.J., where James Daye and Michael Drake organized a group of 10 boys between the ages of 11 and 14 from the Monmouth County Boys and Girls Club to take part in the scrimmage.
For a few weeks in the aftermath of Sandy, the club was shut down, preventing members from getting the mentorship they were used to from leaders like Daye and Drake.
“It’s a great feeling to see them out here,” Drake said. “Most of our kids don’t really get the opportunity to leave the town unless they’re playing Pop Warner football. So to be out here at a college that’s not too far from our home, it’s a great opportunity to experience a different side of life. And that’s our goal: to give them a different outlook, a different view.”
Added Daye: “I want them to get out of their element and broaden their view of what they can do. I want them to know, ‘I don’t have to just play football, I don’t have to just play basketball. I can do other things to get out of the situation I’m in.’
For many of the kids who closed the game, being on the field at Rutgers won’t change that situation, and life will be just as challenging Sunday morning as it was Friday night. But if they got even a little enjoyment out of the spring game, then Rutgers will have accomplished its goal.
“It was a great feeling,” Rutgers quarterback Gary Nova said. “They were running around, having fun, and it’s always great to see kids smiling and laughing. It was rewarding for us that after all this, we were able to give them those five minutes of enjoyment.”