Newsday: Clarke Football Camp

September 5, 2004

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Title: Happy campers, In the wake of last year’s Mepham scandal, football’s boys of summer from Clarke learn the real values of sport in upstate camp
Publication: Newsday – Long Island, N.Y.
Date: Sep 5, 2004
Start Page: B.12
Section: SPORTS
Text Word Count: 3198

Jimmy and John McKenna sat groggily in an SUV as their mom drove them to school. It was Saturday morning, much too early to do anything besides sleep. Never mind that the brothers were jostled out of bed only minutes earlier.

There would be plenty of time to nap. Right now, their young football careers depended on how fast Rachelle McKenna whipped through the back roads of Westbury. “I was scared I was going to miss the bus,” Jimmy said. “My mom woke me up late. She thought I was supposed to be at school by 8.”

The ride lasted all of two minutes, and the McKennas breathed easier as they pulled up to the circle in front of Clarke High School. The scene when they arrived was chaotic. It was 7:30 a.m. Teammates milled about, some chatting as others ate breakfast. Luggage and equipment blocked the sidewalk. The humming coach bus, its storage underbelly open, cast a shadow over it all.

Just hours later, 32 players, five coaches and one supervisor arrived at Camp Pontiac in upstate Copake for the start of football camp. The facility, 163 acres in the foothills of the Berkshires, is home to adolescent campers for much of the summer. By now, the rock- climbing walls are abandoned and the whitewashed wooden cabins that line Lake Rhoda are empty.

“It’s the Fantasy Island of sports,” gushed camp athletic director Walter Bachman, known more famously as a Nassau high school coach and administrator.

Camp Pontiac is dotted with basketball courts, soccer fields and hiking trails, but these teens will know only football. The intense training sessions lasted four days and stretched from dawn to well after sundown on lighted fields – 96 hours that could well define an entire season. Clarke was one of 14 football programs to train there over a three-week period.

“Precamp, you have a lot of individuals and they’re all wearing the Clarke jersey,” said Tim O’Malley, a 1987 Clarke graduate and the team’s offensive coordinator. “When they leave, they’re a team.”

In the year since four Mepham players preyed on teammates in a brutal hazing rite at a football camp in Pennsylvania, the incident has trained the spotlight on such trips. Parents and school administrators have questioned what goes on at these getaways and whether they’re really necessary. Longtime Clarke coach John Boyle never wavered.

The decision to go for the 13th year in a row was never an issue at Clarke. A problem-free history helped assuage fears. So did the sleeping conditions at camp, where the coach and player bunks were connected by a common bathroom and showers. Nothing would go unnoticed by the staff. The program also put money aside in a scholarship fund to help pay the difference for anyone who couldn’t afford the cost of camp, this time a $200 fee.

There was a twist. Boyle offered an open invitation to parents. None actually made the 130-mile trek, but a Newsday reporter did. What follows is a revealing look at how one team learned about the game and each other – and grew closer as a result.

High expectations

Clarke is as suburban as Long Island gets. The school is stashed away in a Westbury neighborhood lined with manicured lawns and brick stoops.

The football program enjoyed a remarkable renaissance a year ago. The team opened the season in a new conference – and despite question marks and a five-year playoff drought – tagged with the top seed.

The Rams delivered with a 7-3 run that ended with a 39-20 loss to perennial power Roosevelt in the Nassau Conference IV title game.

Clarke couldn’t stop elusive runner Daryle McClenic or slippery quarterback Marquise Herron, who combined for 463 rushing yards.

“We feel we lost the championship because we didn’t tackle well,” Boyle admitted. “We had people in the right position.”

Tackling is one emphasis of this camp. Players and staff are a more confident and comfortable bunch as they get ready for a new season. As the No. 2 seed behind Roosevelt, the Rams are expected to be a force once again in 14-team Conference IV.

“Our ultimate goal is to get back to the championship game and win it,” senior fullback/linebacker Bill Palka said.

Camp will help them get there. Football camp means something different for each teenager headed there. Take the McKenna brothers. Each signed on for sweltering practices and cold swims, endless football and still more sweat. All in a setting far from the comforts of their own world.

There’s no air conditioning or cable TV and cell phone reception is spotty.

Jimmy had an idea of what lay ahead. The junior went to camp a year ago, and braced for the worst this time. He brought a pillow, sleeping bag, bug spray, CD player, a cooler filled with Gatorade, an entire suitcase of snacks and plenty of clothes. John, a freshman, experienced it for the first time. A good showing could mean a chance to make the quantum leap from middle school ball to the varsity.

“Playing middle school football and then coming up to the varsity – it’s a whole new game,” John said.

The journey began the moment he stepped from the familiar comfort of the family SUV. “[Jimmy] was exhausted when he came home from camp last year,” said Rachelle McKenna, one of the few parents who waited for the bus to pull away. “But he had a good time. If they didn’t enjoy it, they wouldn’t be going back.”

Getting settled

Clarke relocated to its upstate home after just four practices into the new season. The camp, a short ride off the Taconic State Parkway, seemed even more distant from Long Island sprawl than the reality. The winding country road that connects it to civilization is lined with old cemeteries, rows of corn, silent combines and grazing livestock. In other words, farm country.

It’s the very place where only weeks earlier, a youth league football team from Massapequa, the Mustangs, suffered a hazing episode that resulted in the longtime coach resigning. One player’s mouth was taped shut, his face smeared in peanut butter and he was given a profane nickname by teammates in a skit organized by coaches.

All of it smacks in the face of camp rules, which are read to schools the moment they arrive. It includes a strong anti-hazing stance. Camp workers didn’t learn of the Massapequa episode until reading it in a newspaper. The news broke the day Clarke arrived.

There’s nothing for Boyle, 47, to do but shrug it off. He’s been around the game a lifetime and can’t fathom something like that happening. His father, Jack Boyle, enjoyed a 50-year career in football. When John Boyle took over the winless Clarke program in 1987, Jack signed on as his assistant. That’s how it remained until he died after the 2000 season. The Nassau County Football Coaches Association named its assistant coach of the year award in his honor.

“I actually went to law school for one year and I was going to become a lawyer,” said the younger Boyle, now a dean at the school. “I guess coaching was in my blood. I was always around the game. That’s what happens when your father is a football coach.”

This is the sixth different camp for Clarke. Boyle swears by the experience, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t an adventure. Health officials closed one camp soon after Clarke left. One trip was marked by a police raid in the dead of night to arrest a kitchen worker, according to Boyle.

Also, what camps promise they don’t always deliver. Clarke has been forced to share facilities with other teams, and the food can be tough to stomach.

Not at Camp Pontiac. It didn’t take a half-day for Boyle to assess the amenities. “This is the nicest camp I’ve been to in 13 years,” he said.

Players settled in quickly after orientation. They walked to the girls side of camp and the cabin they would call home for the next four nights. Bunk No. 10 belonged to the players while the coaches stayed next door. As players climbed the stairs to the cabin entrance, a mad dash ensued. They pushed through two doorways in a race to claim the choicest beds. The prime spots, single beds under windows, went quickly. The unlucky ones shared prison-camp style bunks.

Fate stuck Jim McKenna with a top bunk. “It’s hot up there,” he said. “You’re tired. You really don’t want to climb a bunk.”

Hot start

A quick lunch assured the players that this camp is first-rate. Then Clarke took to the field, nicknamed Fenway Park, a baseball diamond with lights. The oversized green chain-link fence cast its shadow over leftfield. Otherwise it bears little resemblance to the Boston treasure.

Football lines have been painted on the parched grass and centerfield has been ground into dust from daily use.

Some teams back a U-Haul truck to their practice field and load it all, including blocking sleds. Clarke traveled comparatively lightly. Two ball bags and several tackling dummies accounted for the bulk of the gear. One luxury Boyle allowed himself was a Juggs machine that fired footballs.

It’s the first of 10 practice sessions in all, and the players, wearing the full complement of protective gear, immediately realized it wouldn’t be easy. Camp workers conceded the team arrived on one of the hottest days of the summer. Even the tall willows that shade the field seemed to bend and melt in the oppressive afternoon humidity. Heat was a factor until Monday evening when the rains came.

“It’s so much hotter than last year’s camp,” senior running back/ cornerback Larry Buffalino said. “The first day, you couldn’t even get to sleep. It was so hot.”

There are two pools on the girls side of camp. After the opening practice, players skipped the shower and headed straight for the pools. The water was refreshing at first. It grew cold fairly quickly. The ensuing evening practice wasn’t better. The end to one steamy day finally came at 9:45 p.m., when the players crossed the two bridges that led from the field to their bunks.

The first day away from home is always the toughest. Alan Ramirez, a beefy senior lineman, recalled going away for the first time as a freshman. “I was homesick,” he said. “That’s it right there. You get over it. You start having fun and making friends.”

If there was any solace, another school, Grady, only began practice as Clarke left. Grady, a first-year varsity program in Brooklyn, could be heard drilling from across the lake until 11. Clarke players tried to drown out the noise with music. They laid quietly in bed with headphones on, hoping sleep would take them.

“I went through this,” said Scott Martin, a 1998 Clarke graduate and the team’s defensive coordinator. “It’s physically and mentally tough. You get tired. We schedule our practice toward how they feel. You know when to ease up on them and when to push them. It’s football and it’s fun.”

Tackling challenges

The fun arrived Sunday, the first day full contact was allowed. Everyone was more aggressive, even the coaches barking instructions.

This was the first real day of football – highlighted by three practice sessions – and coaches asked for a little more.

It began immediately. The players awoke to the sound of bagpipes blasting from a portable CD player. Boyle is Irish, after all. Martin led the players on a 7 a.m. run around camp. There were few thunderous collisions, even though the sessions devoted much of the time to tackling. Football relies on precision more than anything else.

Three-a-days get Clarke players the repetitions they need to grasp all the complexities.

“If you think you are going to make a mistake, don’t worry,” Martin bellowed to the defense. “Just play hard.”

Camp is about getting everyone on the same page. Martin, who played linebacker at C.W. Post, pulled aside junior Abir Rahman for a little extra instruction at cornerback. The 5-7, 135- pound Rahman is one of the fastest on the field. But he began the camp buried on the depth chart because of his size and inexperience. It didn’t help that volunteer assistant Al Barraza, quarterbacking against the second defense, lit up the secondary with a pair of deep completions.

“I’m only 5-7,” said Rahman, who scored five touchdowns as a JV running back a year ago. “It’s hard getting up on some wide receivers. At running back, you don’t need that much height. But with my weight, I get bounced around a little bit. It’s a different ballgame.”

Most of the 14 underclassmen at camp were there for the first time. Like John McKenna and Rahman, they hoped to make an impression. Some struggled while others flourished. Yet there is no bigger surprise than 6-2, 275-pound senior Mike Rollo. He entered camp as a backup and emerged a two-way starter on the line.

“I tried to get better at my position, learn the plays and bond with my teammates,” Rollo said.

The four backs who will carry the load for the Rams in the wing- T offense all return, but there are question marks along both lines, at receiver, tight end, quarterback, linebacker and corner. After two intense days, not to mention an entire summer of conditioning programs and seven-on-seven passing tournaments, the picture became clearer for the staff.

The coaches pictured the lineup for the first time just as the players started to warm to one another.

“Being in the same bunk for four days really tightens up any doubts you might have had about anyone else,” Rahman said. “You start to respect people more for what they can do on the field or what they bring to the locker room.”

Laughter filled the cabin as the teens shared food, swapped CDs, talked and played cards. Bonds formed fast. So did quartets when a group in the shower began to belt out lyrics to *NSYNC. The edginess that hovered in the bunk like smelly socks finally dissipated.

“They are so used to being home and having all the amenities – their own room, TV and bathroom,” said assistant Paul Henning, a 1984 Clarke grad. “The biggest adjustment is having to live with someone else and having to share the facilities. You have to wait to use the bathroom and the shower. It’s a great life lesson, I’ll tell you that.”

Putting it together

As the practices piled up, there were casualties. One lineman sat out with an upset stomach while another took time off because of dehydration. Senior lineman Andrew Diaz got whacked to the head Sunday and spent the next day lounging on a tackling dummy and with an ice pack resting on his crown.

Blisters and bruises were common. At the end of day two, senior Doug Ingram had too many to count. Blisters and boils on both feet turned him into a spectator Monday. He blamed the shoes. “Everyone with these cleats has blisters,” he said matter-of-factly.

“This is the day where all the aches and pains come out,” Boyle said. “It’s the first day after we start hitting. We’ll go through a lot of ice today.”

Boyle named team captains after the morning practice. Players voted the night before and six received strong backing: Buffalino, Palka, Ramirez, Jimmy McKenna, Mike Grimes and Brendon Russo. Boyle had never gone with six captains before, but he supported the will of his players.

Evening rain forced the staff to modify the schedule. Instead of a scrimmage, Clarke worked on the running game in the Pontiac Palace, an indoor gym. O’Malley waded into the huddle and held up cards with the play diagrammed. But even time in the Palace was limited.

Three more teams arrived at the camp Monday: St. Francis Prep (Queens), Great Neck North and Port Washington. So Clarke had to share the Palace with Prep.

Everyone could sense the end of camp as they headed back to the bunks. “I know I’ve gotten better being at camp,” John McKenna said. “I’ve caught the gist of things. But I’m looking forward to going home too.”

Signs of cohesion showed through on the final day. The staff cobbled together a depth chart after much debate, scribbling the results on a white eraser board. They love the upside of John McKenna, the lone freshman they brought to Camp Pontiac. He will remain with the varsity. Having an older brother on the team to learn from will make the transition easier. He’s the backup defensive end for now.

A sophomore, Joe Martino, has also caught the eye of coaches. He’ll start at defensive end. After meeting with each underclassman to define his role, camp culminated with a 45-play scrimmage Tuesday night under the lights at Fenway. The session was taped and graded by position coaches the next day. It offered a chance for Clarke to see how far it has come.

“Camp makes an average team better and a good team very good,” Boyle said. “This is three weeks worth of practices. You have a definite edge the first two weeks of the season. This is a good team. This camp could put us at the next level.”

An electric vibe filled the cool night air. This was as close to playing in a real game as it gets. Halfbacks Buffalino and Mike Palmer burst through cracks in the defense for big gains. As expected, the Clarke ground attack dominated. What coaches looked for was the unexpected. Rahman, a project when camp began, provided hope with an interception at cornerback and surprisingly fluid moves as the backup running back.

As junior defensive tackle Joe Vicari headed toward the sideline, still pumped full of adrenaline, he had advice for the others watching the scrimmage. “Show the coaches you want to be out there,” Vicari said.

Everyone played the final night. As they walked off the field one final time, a team at last, a feeling of accomplishment washed over them. Clarke’s version of boot camp was finally history. They not only survived, the teens flourished. Even the daunting season opener Sept. 18 at No. 3 Manhasset doesn’t loom as large.

“When you come up to camp, you’re with guys that you’ll be playing football with for the next three months – and in my case, two years,” Rahman said. “The bonding is essential. If you asked me the meaning of team, it would be this.”