It has spawned similar books through the years; I had this fantasy to write about my own high school, Delray Beach Atlantic, a program that reached the state football championship game in Florida four times during the 1970s but lost each time. They mirrored the Minnesota Vikings of the same time frame, but at the prep level. So close, but yet so far.
But the latest work about high school football is a good, compelling story. In Lasting Impact: One Team, One Season, What Happens When Our Sons Play Football (Liberty Street; hardback; $27.95; 238 pages), author Kostya Kennedy explores the culture surrounding New Rochelle High School’s football team, a successful program located in the New York City suburbs. But it’s not just the story about the Huguenots’ successful 2014 season; Kennedy, a former senior editor at Sports Illustrated who is now an editorial director at Time, Inc., also tackles some key social, domestic and medical issues that came to the forefront that season and still are causes of concern now.
The safety of the players on the football team, as doctors grappled with new information about concussions and its effects on players, is an underlying theme. So is domestic violence, as New Rochelle’s most famous alumnus, Ray Rice, was under the microscope in 2014 for his violent treatment of his then-girlfriend (now wife) on an elevator at an Atlantic City casino. Socially, New Rochelle reflects the melting pot mixture of the metropolis located not too many miles away — players come from different family dynamics, with different levels of wealth and racial makeup.
From the outset, Kennedy distances himself from similar works. “It’s not about football at a high school in rural Texas,” nor did “a tornado or earthquake or flood or natural disaster devastate a team and town before folks and athletes rallied together in a stirring revival (that probably references Jere Longman’s 2008 book, The Hurricanes: One High School Team's Homecoming After Katrina).
It’s about a team in “a fairly ordinary suburban town” where football is valued “but not revered,” where people are living in an economic gulf between the affluent and the needy.
Once Kennedy gets those disclaimers out of the way — certainly, he was anticipating the inevitable comparisons — he does a solid job meshing the story of the Huguenots and its hard-boiled coach, Lou DiRienzo, the son of Italian immigrants who passes his rock-solid core of family values and work ethic (he worked in a quarry, and so did his father) to his players.
“‘I’ don’t make a play at New Rochelle,” he tells his players. “‘I’ have never made a play at New Rochelle. “‘WE’ make a play at New Rochelle,” DiRienzo tells his players during a summer training camp.”
Sticking together as a team, ignoring distractions and remaining focused on the game are mantras preached by all football coaches. DiRienzo is no different. “This right here is the inner circle,” DiRienzo tells his players. “And nothing and no one penetrates this circle.
“When things are going good everybody’s got a hug for you. But when things are going bad they’re going to have something bad to say about you. … You’ve got to keep that outside the circle. Because they have no idea what we do. How we do.”
There is plenty of joy, teamwork, adversity and bonding throughout Lasting Impact, and Kennedy is descriptive and sets the scenes well. The 2014 squad is a special group and overcomes its weaknesses to play a solid season. But Kennedy also presents some sobering stories that demonstrate that football can be a violent game with fatal results.
Kennedy notes that from the 1982-83 to the 2012-13 seasons there were 222 known and reported “indirect fatalities” associated with high school football. And over that same time frame, there were 180 in the following high school sports combined: baseball, gymnastics, cross-country, soccer, field hockey, swimming, wrestling, volleyball, ice hockey, lacrosse, track, tennis and softball.
From 1995 through 2014, Kennedy writes, there was an average of 12 deaths per year of boys playing high school football. One-third of those deaths, he writes, were classified as “direct fatalities”— a result of impact on the field.
He uses the examples of the football-related deaths of Tom Cutinella of Long Island and Miles Kirkland-Thomas of Staten Island to illustrate the frightening side of the game.
Kennedy’s chapter on Rice returning to his alma mater for a game was a fair rendition. It would be easy to sensationalize the visit, and New Rochelle certainly could have distanced itself from the actions of the Baltimore Ravens running back. DiRienzo turned it into a teaching moment, stressing that despite all the charitable work Rice had done for the Baltimore and New Rochelle communities, and despite his reputation as a “good guy,” that image can be “ruined in 20 seconds” by a violent and unacceptable act.
Kennedy answers the question that has been posed to him, addressing it at the beginning of the book and answering it in his conclusion: Would he allow his son (if he had one) to play football?
“I’d want him to play for a responsible, intelligent coach who abided by the values of discipline and honesty, who had a kindness to him and who thought of his players’ safety before he thought of winning a game,” Kennedy writes. “But I wouldn’t kid myself. I’d know that no coach, however scrupulous and well-intentioned, could eliminate the risks of the game.”
Lasting Impact is a passionate but balanced look at a football program, its coach and players, a city and a sport. There are probably hundreds of programs like New Rochelle throughout the country, but Kennedy takes a penetrating look at athletic, social and medical issues. It’s an entertaining book, but it also serves up a warning that Friday night glory (or Saturday afternoon, in New Rochelle’s case) can be fleeting.