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Guestwords: Football Healing

Wed, 12/06/2023 - 16:39
Mark Joseph Williams, number 16, and his teammates huddle up in the fall of 1973 in a photo from the 1974 East Hampton High School yearbook.
East Hampton Library, Digital Long Island Collection

On Saturday, those involved in the annual East Hampton High School Hall of Fame selection will gather to award this year’s honorees: Earl Hopson, mid-1990s all-county football wide receiver, all-county long jumper, and adept basketball shooting guard; Erin Bock Abran, all-county field hockey and softball player, late 1990s through 2001; Kim Valverde-Solis, four-time all-county girls volleyballer in the late 2000s, and the 1953-54 boys basketball squad that went 16-2, the first Bonac hoopsters to play for a county championship.

I applaud these stars of yesteryear on the South Fork for their athletic prowess, but would be remiss if I did not share a little disappointment. You see, on behalf of our 1973 E.H.H.S. varsity football team as its starting QB, I nominated that championship team earlier this year for Hall of Fame consideration. We captured the A-II eastern Suffolk crown on Nov. 10, 1973.

Fifty years ago, on that chilling-to-the-bone Saturday afternoon, with wind off Great South Bay, our selfless gridiron bunch headed west as huge underdogs and came away victors in a 20-0 thrashing of mighty Babylon. It was our Super Bowl and an extraordinary victory for the East Hampton community under the tutelage of Dick Cooney, the head coach, his first championship since joining the faculty in 1969, along with his able assistant coaches Bob Budd, Ted Meyer, and others.

When I think back to that day, which in 1973 marked the half-century point of football in East Hampton, the nostalgia of the timing hits me, and I lament that the Hall of Fame committee chose not to include our team in this year’s class of inductees. In my mind, how fitting it would have been at Bonac’s century point of football to have our championship team be given Hall of Fame distinction for that time when the sport turned 50 here.

I’ve been told by Hugh King, the town historian, and Jack Graves, the longtime Star sportswriter, that nominations stay active for 10 years, so maybe our time will come. I just hope our guys who are still living, wherever they are, will be around to taste the honor and be recognized for how we advanced Bonac football into the end zone a half-century ago.

While there will be deserving speeches and reminiscences this second Saturday of December celebrating past and worthy East Hampton athletic feats, my own thoughts from here in the Garden State will be with those attending in spirit, but, more profoundly, I will hark back to another ninth day of the last month of the year, a day 55 years ago that changed my life forever and set the stage for football’s becoming an early part of a lifelong healing journey.

On Dec. 9, 1968, I pulled a stool next to my father in his room at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York City, the same hospital where so many coronavirus patients succumbed during the pandemic. A nuclear armaments veteran, age 40, with acute leukemia, he lay in a full protective bubble. I had to touch him through a rubber glove that extended from a plastic sleeve. He turned his head and fought a smile. His hollowed eyes reached mine. As a Catholic and an altar boy, I felt like the women at the foot of the cross. Two hours later my father died. I had just turned 12, and I didn’t realize that my darkest days were ahead.

His death left our family shattered. My mother fell prey to her alcoholism, and I fell prey to her escalating physical and mental abuse. Father figures in the community sought me out. Some were well intentioned, others were not. In my 13th year, I was raped by a male teacher. Molestation by a Roman Catholic priest would follow. This set me on a journey into depression and addiction for which I can barely find the words. As William Styron, the author of “Darkness Visible: A Memoir of Madness,” wrote, “Depression is a disorder of mood, so mysteriously painful and elusive in the way it becomes known to the self — to the mediating intellect — as to verge close to being beyond description.” Although I cannot describe it, I have worked to overcome it. For me, the church that was an arena of my abuse also offered the faith that became my lifeline back to health.

It has taken decades. But I do find comfort in reflecting upon my recovery and realizing that healing is possible for the abused in our midst, in and out of the pews. In the second half of my life, my interior captivity has indeed been freed. For me forgiveness calms the storm. “And whatever you ask in prayer, you will receive, if you have faith” (Matthew 21:22). Time takes time.

One well-intentioned father figure all those years ago after my father’s untimely passing was the famed retired football coach of East Hampton: Fran Kiernan. He was the athletic director at the high school I would enter soon; he was at the tail end of his storied career. I recall meeting him when he was walking his Airedale terrier along Meadow Way close to where he lived.

It was springtime 1969, after the New York Jets had upset the Baltimore Colts in Miami to win Super Bowl III a few months earlier. I was tossing a football with a friend on the expansive lawn of nearby Most Holy Trinity School, pretending to be Broadway Joe Namath hitting Don Maynard on a post pattern for a TD at Shea Stadium. Coach Kiernan came over to me, asked me my name, and remarked, “You have a pretty good arm, son, you should consider trying out for quarterback at the high school next year.”

As an eighth grader who had buried the demons of abuse deep in my soul, certainly not in touch with the grieving process as a youngster after my dad’s death, I took in what Coach said. Football and playing quarterback at East Hampton High School for the next four years of my adolescence into young adulthood became part and parcel of a healing process that I didn’t even realize. Just a kid, I wanted to have fun, be with my friends, and win football games.

Before that 1973 championship game UpIsland, I was part of an undefeated freshman and subsequent J.V. team after the new high school opened its doors in 1970 on Long Lane. Reflecting back, I am glad Saturday games continued to be played at Herrick Park on Newtown Lane. When those battles occurred inside that natural amphitheater against Southampton, Greenport, Port Jefferson, and other schools, all the town’s merchants would shut down for the afternoon to root us on. The community spirit was palpable. So much pride. Such connectedness from a game with origins to the late 19th century. East Hampton embraced it with terrific fervor and support for all the boys of autumn, including me.

Perhaps the greatest gift during that period of my life was Coach Kiernan’s nod of encouragement. It is hard to believe, five decades later, that his prophetic scouting came at the right time and played a part in our team winning it all in 1973. On some level, I am able to appreciate more than ever how his vote of confidence in me offered a glimpse into how football would be healing.

A Hall of Fame teaching moment from a classy Hall of Famer. 

Mark Joseph Williams is a public speaker, forensic clinician, and executive coach who serves as special adviser for the Archdiocese of Newark. In September 2024, Orbis Books will publish his book “Worthy: Why the Catholic Church Is the Solution to the Clerical Abuse Crisis.”


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