Football's power to teach, heal

PLYMOUTH, Mass. -- Events that change the landscape of how you think about life can transform you in different ways. You can lament over losses, you can rally around your family and friends, maybe lend a helping hand, or even accuse the world of crashing down upon you.

That's the definition -- both the good and bad -- of character. The moral or ethical being of a human is tested at the worst of times, and if I hadn't made the decision to become a head coach in Pop Warner football in August, I would have missed out on what turned out to be the best decision of my life.

I am a native of Rockaway Beach, N.Y., and just witnessed one of the biggest natural disasters in the history of the United States. Hurricane Sandy rolled in and destroyed each and every house on the Rockaway Peninsula that stretches seven miles long and only four blocks wide at its widest point. Jamaica Bay met the Atlantic Ocean for a 13-foot block party of water rage in the middle of the streets of my hometown. My heart was broken and I felt for the hundreds of friends and families who were in ruins.

If I described the scenes or showed the pictures to 7-, 8- and 9-year-old boys, they might have thought it was a lesson on the war in Afghanistan. But for the first time all season, it was Coach Fabry who needed to be picked up off the grass after being knocked down by his opponent.

The type of message I delivered didn't matter to these kids, except they knew a team member -- or should I say family member -- needed help.

Rockaway Beach has gone three weeks (and counting) with no heat, no hot water, limited supplies, terrible air to breathe, no cell phone service. Some of the power has been turned, on but most of my close friends are still displaced. No supermarket, no automobiles, children displaced in schools miles away from their homes.

I watched all of this unfold, but two things never changed -- the character of my hometown and the teamwork of my Mighty Mites of Plymouth, Mass. The team name "Mighty Mites" couldn't be more appropriate, and their little pigskin hands were there for my hometown.

Human nature and the kindness of others shine in adversity, even for little kids. It started with an email to the team; I thought the players and their families would bring a new pair of socks or some old blankets and jackets for the winter to donate to those in need.

It turned into three trucks full of supplies filled to the brim from Pop Warner families for people they never met.

This showed me how football, family, friends and faith are synonymous. Two communities became linked as the word-of-mouth campaign spread like wildfire.

The kids were prepared to play against each other in a jamboree scrimmage to end the season. The Mighty Mite level is broken into two teams, E-White and E-Blue. I coach the E-White squad, but you would not have known which side I coached by the support from each team.

David Durocher coaches the E-Blue team, and his players lined up side-by-side with my squad, handling the loading of materials while I thanked everyone. We were not playing a game until every corner was filled with donated generators, food and water.

Cabby Brini, owner of Cabby Shack -- Plymouth's local watering hole -- loaded gallons of his famous clam chowder and 20 to 25 pizzas without even asking if we needed help. The players showed up early. We filled a U-Haul, a flatbed truck with a trailer hitch, and a rented SUV until we couldn't take another bottle of water.

My players thanked me and wished me luck on my trip. They thanked me? All I did was yell and scream at them to keep their heads up when making a tackle, but right before my teary eyes, my little men were learning a lesson I couldn't teach on the football field.

One of the final items given to me before I left for the 250-mile trip was a young player's good-luck charm; he wanted me to give it to a kid who needed it more than him.

It was one of hundreds of moments that are etched forever in my soul. Forty players, coming together for one goal, one mission, and we needed each and every one of them and their families to make it happen. Sound familiar? Plymouth Pop Warner football breathed life back into me and back into my family's lives, not to mention hundreds of folks in the Rockaway, Breezy Point and Broad Channel communities.

One of the lasting impressions as we pulled into Rockaway Beach was that of a firefighter who came to our car window and asked where we were from. He was outside a blue tent, in the middle of the street; New York City's bravest had to call that tent home because their firehouse was destroyed.

He had to fight back tears, saying, "The party is over," but in the same breath, he said, "We're going to be OK. It will just take some time."

One would think it was the power of Superstorm Sandy that brought me to my knees, but that couldn't be further from the truth. What humbled me was the unbelievable response by common folks for strangers on their way to rebuilding.

The effort and teamwork are nothing I could imagine duplicating on the football field. Maybe someday the Mighty Mites of Plymouth will recognize the magnitude of what they did for my hometown. Today, they just did what they were taught -- help your teammate when he is down and lend a hand to get him up.

Brian Fabry is an occasional contributor to ESPNBoston.com's high school sports coverage.