A Bond They Will Never Forget
For many of them, the memories had simmered below the surface for months as they tried to recover.
On Tuesday, the one-year anniversary of Hurricane Sandy demolishing the Jersey Shore, there was no way to avoid the emotions rushing back. Whether it was turning on the television, checking out social media or going online, stories about the worst storm to ever hit this area were everywhere.
“It seems like it was yesterday,’’ said Point Beach senior lineman Tommy D’Amore, whose family lost their home in the storm. “I knew the date was coming up, but it seems like it was August only a few days ago. I tried not to think about it as much as I can, but it’s hard with everyone talking about it and bringing it back up every couple minutes.”
For some, the emotions that the images on television or Twitter or Instagram evoked were something to be avoided. Many were also part of an NFL Network documentary on Hurricane Sandy featuring Keyport, Point Beach, Keansburg and Manasquan that aired on Tuesday night and will air again at 3 p.m. on Wednesday and 4:30 p.m. on Friday.
“I made a conscious effort not to look at a single newscast today,’’ Manasquan head coach Jay Price said Tuesday night. “I just went paddleboarding. I wanted to be alone. Just seeing the emotional aftermath of the whole thing was hard. People are celebrating businesses opening and homes being rebuilt, but there are just so many people who still have nothing.”
“It's like it's never going to go away,’’ said Point Beach head coach John Wagner. “It’s hard to move on, but with all the displaced people and the way it changed people's lives here, you still have people deciding who is going to stay and who is going to pick up and leave.”
While the memories of the devastation are seared into the minds of many local residents, the football players who endured particular hardship also will never forget the bond they formed with teammates and strangers in the aftermath.
“It was one of the not-so-good Manasquan teams we had in a while record-wise (at 5-5), but it was probably one of my favorite teams to play on because of what we did in the face of tragedy,’’ said Manasquan senior lineman Matt Forst, who had the first floor of his home flooded. “I will never forget that team.”
“It's devastating for everybody, but we all helped each other,’’ said former Keyport star linebacker Johnny Olsen, who graduated last summer. “They all helped me, all my boys on the football team. That's the main thing I miss the most, because coach (Mike Ciccotelli) was like a second dad to me.”
The Day Everything Changed
For Olsen, 2012 was already the most difficult year of his young life well before the hurricane wrecked his home in Union Beach. On Jan. 21, 2012, good friend and fellow Keyport student Matt Adams, 17, was struck and killed by a taxi while he was crossing Route 36 on foot into Hazlet. On March 14, 2012, his older brother, David Allen, 29, died right outside his house of undisclosed causes. A month before the storm hit, his aunt passed away.
“After I was finally starting to get over it, the storm came and took everything I ever had away from me,’’ Olsen said.
During the storm, Olsen and his mother went and stayed with his uncle further inland in Union Beach. His uncle's whole basement was flooded, and they had to go to the top floor of the house, but they made it through. When they returned to their home following the storm, they found complete destruction.
“My heart just dropped in my stomach – my trophies, my medals, honor roll awards, everything is just gone,’’ Olsen said.
As Olsen witnessed all his prized possessions reduced to rubble, he noticed one item that went unscathed.
“Everything in my room wasn’t there,’’ he said. “The only thing I had left was my brother’s (mass) card from his funeral. It was tacked to my wall, and it was the only thing left on there.”
A ring that belonged to his brother was also later found in the rubble outside his home, giving him a tiny bit of solace.
Football was more important than ever to Olsen and his teammates last season, as his Keyport teammates pitched in and helped with the cleanup. Going to practice and playing games also meant at least a short respite from dwelling on the devastation.
“That’s what got my mind off everything,’’ Olsen said. “Football was my life.”
“Everyone was there for me 100 percent,’’ said former Keyport wide receiver Greg Armstrong, whose Union Beach home was flooded. “We had donations from friends, coaches, parents, players' moms - it was amazing.”
Olsen, who now is a student at William Paterson University, lived with his uncle’s family for a stretch and then he and his mother rented a place in Keyport before they could move back into their home eight months after the storm.
“I just try not to think about it,’’ he said. “If you sit there and analyze everything, you’ll make yourself crazy. If you just move past it, you can grow from it. You acquire strength with the pain that you overcome.”
Olsen misses being part of a football team but still keeps in regular contact with the seniors on this year’s team. For many of the members of last year’s Keyport team, the anniversary does not mark the end of the struggles. Armstrong had the first floor of his home flooded and destroyed, and like many victims of the storm, his family is still battling red tape over insurance and FEMA funds.
“I see my parents talking about it every single day,’’ Armstrong said. “We haven't gotten that (money) back or anything. It’s all they talk about at the dinner table every night.”
Despite all the hardship, Olsen and Armstrong choose to look at the silver lining from the aftermath of the storm rather than the destruction.
“I didn't think at one point that people weren't going to help with clothes, or building the house, or whatever we needed,’’ Armstrong said. “I couldn't believe it.”
Armstrong said Union Beach was “a straight ghost town” for the first four months after the storm, but is slowly coming back to life. However, for people like Olsen, things may never be the same again.
“I don't think it could be the same because everyone lives in fear like it's going to happen again,’’ Olsen said.
A New Beginning
It was only a few days after Point Beach’s football team came back to the town with a fire truck escort in celebration of the program’s first 8-0 start ever when D’Amore’s home and many others in the town were crushed by the storm.
After he and his family evacuated the morning of the storm to a friend’s house in Brick, they returned to a scene from the apocalypse.
“It was surreal,’’ D’Amore said. “The whole yard looked different. There was stuff that was not ours that floated up, and stuff that was ours was gone. It was darker, gloomier. We tried to sneak in during the first few days after the storm, and we saw boats in the streets.”
As soon as it was safe to come over, strangers and his football teammates arrived to help. D’Amore also joined his teammates in riding around town in the flatbed of a pick-up truck and stopping at homes to help in any way they could.
“A couple days after, people I didn't even know were offering help with the house, and stopping over and giving us food and water,’’ he said. “We were helping out with the football team, giving meals out, too. It felt good for me to pay back the favor and get their stories.”
Many of those people came to watch Point Beach’s 44-6 win over South River in the first round of the NJSIAA Central Jersey Group I playoffs in their first game back.
“I remember the town came out more than they have for any game,’’ he said. “It was a great atmosphere to be there and play there. They got to talk to people they hadn’t seen in days or weeks, and get their mind off their houses and what happened in the storm.”
Since the storm, D’Amore and his family have been renting a house in Point Beach. Their previous home was demolished several weeks ago, and D’Amore is looking at that as a crucial step rather than a devastating event.
“It was kind of like a new beginning knowing everything with the house is gone,’’ he said. “Now we can start a new life with a new house and forget everything that happened.”
A Lifetime Bond
One of the most emotional games played in the wake of Hurricane Sandy last year was Manasquan’s 14-9 comeback win at Vic Kubu Warrior Field over previously unbeaten Rumson-Fair Haven on Nov. 10. The anniversary of the storm and the fact that the two teams face off again on Nov. 8, with the Bulldogs once again unbeaten, have rekindled memories of a game those on the home team won’t soon forget.
The Warriors trailed 9-0 before scoring twice in the second half to pull out a win that galvanized a group of fans and families who were battered and weary from the clean-up.
“It brings back that fresh hurt,’’ Price said. “Opening up the huddle today and getting ready for them, it was a little weird. You immediately associate so many other non-football things with this game.”
A nor’easter rolled in only days after the hurricane, and the players and other volunteers shoveled snow off their muddy home field in order to allow the Rumson game to get played at Warrior Field. The work of helping people with their homes and shoveling snow off the field was welcomed given everything that had just happened.
“That first day back was like seeing your teammates for the first time in a week or couple days, so it was uplifting,’’ Forst said. “You could see how we were so happy to see each other. Other people would feed off that, thinking that even as troubled a time as it is, these kids are making the best of it.”
After a dismal first half against the Bulldogs, the Warriors came alive with the game on the line in the latest of countless comebacks on their home field over the years. Blocked field goals, blind-side sacks, forced fumbles, big passes, a game-winning touchdown run by tailback Joe Murphy and a game-sealing interception by Joe Fittin resulted in a euphoric, tear-filled celebration. The victory also qualified for the Warriors for the state playoffs on the last possible day, adding extra emphasis.
“That game right there was probably the most emotional game I have ever been a part of, and the best game I have ever been a part of,’’ said Manasquan senior linebacker Tom Bellefueille. “It gave us a little hope that things will get better.”
“Football has always been something to get your mind away from life,’’ Forst said. “You can't control a Superstorm Sandy, can't control a nor’easter that hits the field, but you can control how hard you play in a football game. It gave us a feeling that things will work out in the long run.”
It was that way for many towns in the Shore, where a football game was the first step back to life. The teams in towns most affected formed a bond that will be remembered long after everyone’s football careers have ended.
“Some people didn't feel comfortable around one another before the storm, but it made everyone feel comfortable,’’ Bellefueille said. “Everyone knew that we had each other's backs.”
It has been an entire year, but for many players, the memories, good and bad, will never be far away.
“It really feels like it just happened,’’ Forst said. “It seems like my street was just covered in sand and I had to be aware of driving because I would get nails in my tires every day. It’s just shocking how quick a year goes by.”
“It was life-changing,’’ D’Amore said. “I will think about it for the rest of my life.”