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Nassau Community College players persevere through Hurricane Sandy
With all the Nassau Community College football team has been through the past month, traveling cross country and adjusting to temperatures 40 degrees warmer is nothing.
The team from Garden City, N.Y., on Long Island arrived in Yuma Thursday ahead of Saturday's El Toro Bowl against Arizona Western. Kickoff for the game, which is sponsored by Alexander Automotive Group, is at 1 p.m.
But considering that the Lions' athletic office is a FEMA headquarters and their facilities, including their field, were used as a shelter for victims of Superstorm Sandy, not much can throw the team off these days.
“The toughest part of Sandy, we knew there was a hurricane coming, but we didn't know it was going to be that severe. Or at least I didn't feel it was going to be as severe as it was,” Nassau head coach Curtis Guilliam said. “It affected us, I mean having over 2,000 people living in your facility, just the athletic department, where even our basketball court was taken over. We couldn't use our weight room anymore. The kids weren't even allowed in the building anymore because it was taken over by FEMA.”
The storm was the remnants of Hurricane Sandy, which weakened and reformed as a post-tropical cyclone with hurricane force winds. It made landfall in New Jersey on Oct. 29, and even before that wreaked havoc with New York City, knocking out power to an estimated 2.5 million people in the New York metropolitan area.
Estimates have the amount of damage caused by the storm at $65.5 billion, making it the second-costliest hurricane in U.S. history behind Hurricane Katrina.
Obviously there was no escaping the damage for the Long Island school.
“Coming from New York, there's not too many hurricanes that occur there,” said wide receiver Mark Thomas, who is from Brooklyn. “Most of the people didn't take it that serious. Just seeing those faces of random people around the campus, they really had a lot of wear and tear on them. It makes the players humble because you actually see people from one second who had everything and then later on, everything's gone within a minute. It was a humbling stage for a lot of kids. We welcomed everyone that decided to stay in those facilities.”
Sharing the campus with the evacuees meant the team had to find practice time when and where it could. The storm caused the Northeast Football Conference to postpone most of its Week 9 games.
“We never had a set location of where we were going to practice,” Guilliam said. “During that time, and over the last 2-3 weeks, we were able to set up a time at an indoor facility our arena football team uses. It's been very tough, but our kids love the game and they just stuck with it, whatever we had to do.
“I'm very serious about this — we had to practice in the parking lot one time just because there was nowhere we could practice. But we're here, we're happy to be here and we're just going to plug away.”
Both Guilliam and the players said those inconveniences didn't matter when faced with the reality of the storm's victims.
“Actually seeing those people struggling, seeing them have food one day then the next day they don't have anything to eat, was one of the saddest moments I've ever seen in my life,” said linebacker Amara Kamara, who is from Pennsylvania. “I've never been in a hurricane before, and seeing that made me want to help. It was tough, but we got along. We will get by.”
Guilliam said most of the team was able to evacuate, as the roster is filled with players from not only New York but also nearby states like New York, New Jersey, Connecticut and Pennsylvania.
But whether the players left or stayed, there were hardships.
“They couldn't get back because there was no gas,” Guilliam said. “The gas lines were sometimes seven, eight miles. And the kids that didn't go home, that lived too far away, were struggling to get food because there was no electricity. It was a tough situation. The whole conference had to postpone the second-to-last week of the season.
“It's an unfortunate situation, but we'll make it through,” he said. “If they did it during Katrina, which was worse than what we had, we'll be OK, obviously.”
The Lions struggled in their Week 10, losing to ASA in a game in which they lead by nine with four minutes left. They lost on a last-second field goal.
Guilliam said he wanted to make sure his team got into a good bowl and immediately called AWC athletic director Jerry Smith to make sure his No. 6 Lions got a shot.
“That's part of the reason I wanted to come out here,” Guilliam said. “I wanted to give the kids an opportunity to see something other than New York City. Do we recruit kids from all over? Yes. But sometimes our kids are from New York, New Jersey, the Tri-State area and don't get the opportunity to see the whole country.”
Game time temperature is expected to be around 79 degrees. The high Saturday in Garden City is expected to be 46 with a 20 percent chance of rain.
“The weather is just beautiful out here. It's not like New York where it's 30 degrees right now,” Thomas said. “I'm loving it. I don't want to go home. It's a nice place.”
AWC quarterback Tanner McEvoy is from New Jersey and said he didn't envy the trip the Lions made, which started Wednesday morning leaving New York and arriving in Phoenix Wednesday night.
“I've been on that flight before — it's a not an easy one,” McEvoy said. “But I know Saturday is going to be a great game. I'm from their neck of the woods, and I'm looking forward to it.”
But Guilliam said that was all part of the experience — especially the bus ride Thursday from Phoenix to Yuma.
“It was almost like sightseeing,” Guilliam said. “The kids haven't seen the scenery you guys have. I feel it's a great opportunity to come out here to enjoy great competition against a great team.
“The whole transition here is an experience,” he said. “I don't think they're worried about it. They're living it up, with the opportunity of flying, the chance of staying in different hotels. Basically, just like a Division I program would do — and that's what they aspire to. So it's the closest thing to them getting ... a four-year, BCS-style bowl game.”