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Shore Strong: Local Players Face Adversity Head-on

High school football players are used to hearing how players and teams overcome adversity through teamwork and great individual effort.

Senior Connor Grogan is one of many players on Manasquan whose home suffered heavy damage from Hurricane Sandy, but he and the Warriors have worked hard to help the community rebuild while also preparing to return to the field Saturday. (Photo credit: Cliff Lavelle).

Words like “loyalty” and “heroism” are constantly used in speeches before or after games. Towns rally together to cheer players during rides on fire trucks with sirens blasting after state championship victories. These have been great memories for many Shore Conference football players, but now those words and sirens have been given a much different meaning by Hurricane Sandy.

Many Shore Conference players have seen homes they have spent their entire lives in washed away. For some, the only remains are piles of sand and debris reaching to the sky in front of their homes from what was once their memories. As they look down the street, they see those some piles in front of their neighbors’ homes for blocks.

The communities that have always applauded and followed their accomplishments are now working side by side with them as they take on the young adult roles they had been taught would happen in their lives, just not so soon.

Players like Manasquan’s Connor Grogan, Point Beach’s Tommy D’Amore and Quinn Kusma and Point Boro’s Chris Oliphant have seen their homes and belongings washed away as they tried in vain to save them.  Some have returned to their homes after being evacuated only to be told that they must knock down the walls that protected them all their lives, or they have returned to find nothing remaining except the memories that are bringing tears to their eyes.

Each of these players has his own story. What they have in common is how they stood up and helped their families and neighbors in the face of hardship rarely faced by teenagers.  The way they handled themselves was not for a newspaper headline or a story, but because it’s what they had been raised to do by their role models: parents, families, teachers and coaches.

They might have stood in waist-high water trying to save some valuable memories, or shoveled sand for hour after hour for people they did not know and might never see again.

“This is what we should be doing,’’ D’Amore said.

“We just have to move on and overcome obstacles,’’ Kusma said.

Grogan, a senior wide receiver at Manasquan, evacuated his home on Fourth Avenue on the day of the storm. His family was not allowed back by authorities until five days later. During that time, Grogan, his parents and three younger sisters stayed with friends in Manasquan. (His older brother is a sophomore at the University of Rhode Island). Every day, Grogan’s father would walk to the bridge and try to convince the policeman on duty to allow him to survey the damage, to no avail.

Finally, at 7 a.m. Saturday, the six Grogans were allowed to enter the beachfront to see what was left of their home.  It was very emotional for the children to see the remainder of the home they had spent their entire lives growing up in.

Grogan had to hold back his emotions as they looked at the destruction that almost four feet of water did to the entire first floor of his home.  If not for early precautions in moving as much of their belongings to the second and third floors as they could, their loss would have been much larger.

For the next two days, Grogan and his family, friends and teammates took their anger and frustration out on the soggy remains of sheet rock and ruined remains of carpet in the house.  On Thursday, the team had a meeting and reminded each other of their commitment to Big Blue football with a huge game looming against undefeated Rumson-Fair Haven at home that was postponed until this Saturday. Outside of the few hours of practice, Grogan has done his best to assist those in need in the town.

“I have been around Manasquan football all my life so I know how special it is,’’ Grogan said. “I feel the community is looking at Saturday’s game as the start to our recovery.  I feel that this is similar to the New Orleans Saints and what happened with Katrina and how the whole community is going to rebound and rally around us. Hopefully with the same results.’’

A little further south in Point Pleasant Beach, D’Amore, a junior lineman, and Kusma, a senior lineman, are part of an unbeaten Garnet Gulls team in the midst of a dream season they hope ends with the program’s first state championship.

Those dreams were rudely interrupted last week. D’Amore was displaced after his family’s original plan of riding out the storm was scrapped when the water reached their homes before Sandy had even started in full. He was fortunate that he was able to relocate with some family and then friends, and as fate would have it, one of head coach John Wagner’s former students at Roselle Park had a home in Point Beach for the family to rent.

Kusma lives in Lavallette, and his family also had hoped to ride out the storm but had to change plans. They have had to relocate multiple times in the past week.  They spent one day sleeping in his mother’s office, another day with family in Spring Lake Heights, and then when Monmouth University’s Hall of Fame banquet was cancelled, they were able to use those hotel rooms reserved for the honorees. They are also now renting a home in Point Beach.

“This is one of the great things about this town is that everyone has gone out of their way to help everyone,’’ Wagner said.

D’Amore and his teammates spent two days tearing down sheet rock, pulling up carpet and throwing away wet and soggy personal items accumulated in a lifetime of living in the Beach.  Kusma has not returned to his home yet,  but has been told by some of the workers that his home has not suffered any structural damage. He will also need his teammates’ assistance in the removal process.

Their stories are a little different, but their resolve and determination are similar.  “It is what it is,” they both said.  After spending Saturday working at the D’Amore’s home, they had a day off from football on Sunday.  From 7 a.m. to 7 p.m., which would have been longer if not for the town’s curfew, they were working side by side with their teammates as they went house to house, block by block, helping the same community that cheers them every Friday Night at Donald T. Fioretti Field.

“It feels awesome being with teammates helping all over town,’’ D’Amore said.

By Monday and Tuesday, the Garnet Gulls, who have a bye this week as they gear up for the Central Jersey Group I playoffs, started practicing again.

“We are a family,’’ Kusma said. “Anyone who has ever played a team sport knows that your teammates are your family away from home during the season.  We have been taught where to be on the field when different things happen, and we carried that over when we knew where we should be off the field without having to be told.’’

Help has been coming from everywhere, including neighboring towns. Kusma and D’Amore told a story about a Brick Memorial wrestler who just showed up at the beach one day and spent hours working along with them.

Kusma and D’Amore compared their tenure at Point Beach to the adversity the town is facing now.  They arrived at a program that was perennially near the bottom of the standings and had not won a playoff game since 1982. They continued to work hard and move forward, facing the challenge head-on until they ended the playoff victory drought last season. Now they are enjoying their dream season, becoming the first Point Beach team to ever start 8-0 and tying the school single-season record for wins that they also tied last year.

They honestly believe that Hurricane Sandy is just another opponent on their schedule that they have not defeated yet.  Their Cinderella success story will not only be on the field, but also will carry over in their community no matter how far it extends.

In the town next door, Oliphant, Point Boro’s senior quarterback, knows exactly the type of tough situation many in Point Pleasant Beach are facing. Oliphant and his family live right on the water’s edge and their home is built on six feet of pilings. They decided to ride out the storm at home thinking that they made it through Hurricane Irene, so they could make it through Sandy.

As they went to bed on the night of the storm, they saw a transformer blow as the water started rapidly rising and realized that it was too late to leave, so they made the most of it. The water rose above the pilings, destroying their first floor and garage, destroying three cars in the process.

Less than a day later, Oliphant and his Point Boro teammates were already hard at work knocking down sheet rock, ripping up carpet and removing insulation. Last Friday, Point Boro coach Sean Henry called for an optional practice, and 95 percent of the team showed up. All they did was just throw the ball around, and play two-hand touch games.  Everyone was happy to be there even if it was just for a few hours.  After practice they went and helped the community, with some players doing the shoveling and others helping to removal the piles of debris.

“We are a very tight community,’’ Oliphant said. “Everyone helped their neighbors before this, so it continued to happen. We started as a team of 40 players and now we have the entire community working together to rebuild and restore.

“My friend is their friend.  We are not saying, ‘Why me?’ We are looking at the positives that it could have been a lot worse.  I have my family and friends.  I can rebuild everything else that I lost.  It’s like being the quarterback.  You take the blame even if it is not your fault.  I’ll take it. I can handle it especially when I know I have so many people who have my back.’’

The story of these four players and the numerous others affected by the storm is not a football story.  It is a life story that has football players in it.  It’s not just this one area of the Shore.  It’s all of the Shore communities, from the top of Monmouth County to the southern tip of Ocean County.

All of the players spoke about how they wanted to get back to normal. They want to give their communities a couple hours of fun this weekend.  They want to play their games because this is what they do.  They want their family, friends and fans to come out and cheer just like they did the first eight weeks of the season. They want to be a welcome distraction.

Hurricane Sandy took the lead in the first half during the past two weeks. This weekend, the Shore will come storming out of the locker room for the second half.

Art Gordon contributed to this story

 

 

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