It all came back to me Thursday. I had not seen a game at Jamaica High since the end of the 1955 season, when I was benched after edging over to the sidelines to catch up on the Dodger-Yankee score. (It was the seventh game of the World Series, and we were playing in Brooklyn.)
So much has changed. The comprehensive Jamaica High School has been phased out, replaced by four smaller schools tucked into corners of the grand old building on the glacial hill. But there is still a Jamaica team in the Public School Athletic League, and on Thursday it played a big game against Far Rockaway.
The coach is Dana Silverstein, twenty-five years old, a former player for the University of Rhode Island. She says the young men have probably never played for a female coach before, but they listen to her, they show respect.
I remember the polyglot Jamaica team of my years. Silverstein told me she heard at least thirteen different languages in the building but that one player will translate a fine point for a teammate, if needed.
The Jamaica home uniform was a white shirt and navy blue shorts. I remembered our ratty red long-sleeved jerseys and our school song, to the tune of Aura Lee (Love Me Tender): “Red and blue/ Red and blue/ School of red and blue…”
The Jamaica football team – another innovation since the 50s -- practiced directly behind the west goal. The players dressed in the fieldhouse which I remembered as old and musty, where we ate orange slices at halftime. More recently I have heard that Joe Austin, the legendary coach for St. Monica’s – Mario Cuomo’s mentor for life -- used to keep a spare set of clothes and perhaps spend the night there if the baseball games ran late.
Far Rockaway had won ten matches and lost only once, scoring above three goals seven different times. Jamaica, with a 4-6-1 record, could not afford another loss if it wanted to qualify for the playoffs. From the start, Far Rockaway was more physical, knocking Jamaica players to the artificial turf, pounding the ball downfield.
I have been watching games from the press tribune for the past eight World Cups, as Sócrates and Baggio and Zidane and Donovan moved forward like Pak-Men on electronic rampage, but down here on terra firma it happened fast.
For this ancient defender, the old terror came back – how hard it was to track the ball while facing west, the autumn haze, the sun at a nasty low angle, and suddenly hordes of opponents would materialize, as if in a science-fiction movie, right out of the glare.
Far Rockaway fired wide a few times but then scored the goal that had seemed inevitable. “Keep fighting,” the coach shouted.
The teams changed sides at halftime, and with the sun at their backs, the Jamaica players seemed invigorated. They tied the match with a lightning shot from distance; a few minutes later they scored another cannonball goal. “Zero-zero,” Silverstein shouted, meaning, don’t let up. But Far Rockaway pressed toward the fifty Jamaica football players clustered behind the west goal, and with about five minutes left, the visitors scored.
“Fight back, Jamaica,” the coach shouted. “This is your season.”
The match ended in a 2-2 draw. The coach called her players onto the turf and addressed them: “I can’t think of a bad thing to say,” she said, her tone optimistic, encouraging. “You played well. Practice tomorrow. Game Monday.”
The last game is 4 PM Monday at Campus Magnet in Cambria Heights, which used to be Andrew Jackson – Jamaica’s biggest rival in the old basketball days.
My word to my old teammates, from Long Island to California, is that these guys watch the great clubs and national teams, which we never could do. My teammates would love their, power, their moves, their maturity on the field. Go, Jamaica.
The roster, straight from the website http://www.psal.org/profiles/team-profile.aspx#012/28517: