By BECKY PENHAKER
On the morning of Sept. 11, 2001, Chuck Johnson opened the weight room at Ridgewood High School the same way he had for the past 16 years-opening its doors at 6 am sharp. As the head football coach and physical education teacher, he was used to his routine.
Johnson’s regimented schedule, however, was put off track that morning when the entire community of Ridgewood, tri-state area and nation came to a halt.
“I was teaching weight lifting classes, and someone came in and told us,” Johnson said in a phone interview. “Everyone was waiting for instructions-the school came to a standstill. All the information was like ‘wham-bam thank you, ma’am.’”
All activities after school-including Johnson’s football practice-were canceled. With the children being sent home early, Johnson decided to handle the stress as he did his life-by going on a long run. Running the seven mile route to his home, he could hear F-16’s flying overhead.
As a father of three, Johnson’s paternal instinct kicked in with his players. Knowing that this devastation was going to turn their world into a frenzy, he wanted to maintain a balance that would keep their minds focused on something other than terror -something that would let them escape from the fear that was consuming their community and nation.
Other parents in the community saw the importance of keeping their kids distracted, even if not through Johnson’s sport of football.
Laurie Goodman, mother of two and board of education member, felt keeping her children busy with soccer would help.
“Sports offer a great sense of routine that’s important dealing with a tragedy -being able to work through and find that normalcy with practice, games and teammates,” Goodman said. “That consistency and distraction was necessary with all the news and pictures. It was good for the kids to just go out and kick a soccer ball around. It was the same game on Sept. 12 like it was on Sept. 10.”
Close to home
Returning to school the next day, Johnson was ready to resume practice if his players were. But his 75 man squad was split.
A school with about 1,700 kids, living in a town of 24,500 residents, everyone seemed to know someone that was being affected by one of the devastating tragedies in American history.
One boy on Johnson’s varsity team didn’t hear about his dad’s whereabouts for 24 hours because of the communication failure in the city. His dad did return home safely.
But for one of the boy’s on the freshmen team, he and his family were not so fortunate. Jon Vandevander was the Vice President at Carr Futures, working on the 92nd floor of the North Tower. A week after the attacks, the police informed the Vandevander family of four that Jon’s body had been found.
During a time of fear and confusion, Johnson wanted his players to return to a more structured environment-to gain back a sense of normalcy and identity. But with his young men struggling with so many different thoughts and emotions, he decided instead of having a practice, they would have a team barbeque that Wednesday night.
“Instead of having a divided team, we formed an even tighter bond,” Johnson recalled.
Johnson’s decision to cater to his boys emotional stability, proved to current board of education president, Michele Lenhard, that the school athletic setting provides more than just an outlet for physical dominance, but emotional consideration.
“Coaches are able to evaluate and understand how to develop their students,” Lenhard said. “It’s important in a crisis for kids to find connections in school. So they feel part of the community, and bond to something and someone outside of the home. Coaches and a team provide that connection.”
Game time decisions
That Saturday, the team was scheduled to have a conference game. But with further team meetings, the players decided they did not feel right about playing.
Ridgewood High School is part of the New Jersey State Interscholastic Athletic Association (NJSIAA) – this regulates high school athletics, setting the criteria for state play-off contenders.
Johnson, along with other coaches around the area, petitioned the NJSIAA to have games suspended that weekend. The NJSIAA ignored those pleas and kept the games as scheduled. Under NJSIAA rules, football teams had to play at least 8 games to qualify for states. With coaches and teams fearing not making play-off contention because of a forfeit or loss hurting their records, they decided to go through with the weekend’s planned events.
Johnson’s team thought otherwise.
“The NJSIAA was completely insensitive and had no consideration for our kids,” Johnson said. “There was a total lack of understanding. But our kids said ‘screw it,’ and decided to forfeit to spend time with their families.”
Playing under those circumstances wasn’t worth it for the even the most disciplined sport fanatic that Johnson embodied. A man that tallied 7 varsity letters at college, playing football, basketball and baseball; that lives for practice and since the age of 16 knew he wanted to be a coach so he could always surround himself with athletic people saw the importance of walking away from the game that weekend.
“I was so proud of our boys,” Johnson said. “It wasn’t football the way we knew-it was a very forced scenario-this brought the team together like a family.”
The Maroons returned to action Sept. 17 to prepare for that week’s upcoming game. But Johnson can’t even remember that first game back. All he can recall is how it felt getting back into the swing of practice.
“It was great going to practice again-getting back to normal and finding that comfort zone,” Johnson said. “This whole thing was horrible, but we needed to persevere and get through it. You can’t give in; you’ve got to go on so the town can go on.”
Despite the NJSIAA’s refusal to alter the game schedule, Johnson’s team prevailed, finishing 8-3 that season losing in the state semi-final game.
Ten years later
The 2001 team still ranks as one of Johnson’s favorite teams for their great leadership and character, and he sees a lot of those similarities ringing true for this 2011 squad.
Johnson describes this team as a very special group of boys that have been able to come together in a phenomenal way because they have been willing to drink the “cool-aid” and sacrifice for each other.
Johnson’s captain for this year is the beating heart of the team. He explains Brendan Carroll as a true gamer and natural leader. He has been able to watch him develop as a scrappy little player, coaching him in travel baseball from fourth to eighth grade, to a money player that is always at the center of a major play.
Carroll was 7 years old when he the towers fell. Ten years later he wears a sticker on his helmet commemorating and honoring Ladder 3-the fire truck his father, Michael, had been in when he perished along with 10 others in the East Village Unit as they rushed into the North Tower shortly before it collapsed.
Last year, Carroll wore the sticker by himself. This year, he decided to have the whole team be involved with it.
“Brendan is the spark plug- 5’7, 140 pounds and has the heart of a lion,” Johnson said. “Sports have been his outlet. He still gets very choked up when talking about his dad-he knows what he’s lost. He has a ton of role models at the fire house, with his uncles; he’s had a ton of kids rally around him. But he would trade all that for his dad.”
Goodman remembered with her own son’s soccer team the importance of uniting around the children and families affected.
“My son played with a boy who lost a dad in the attacks,” Goodman said. “The team had a built in support system. The mom had five kids and was dealing with the loss. Parents were there to pick him and take him to the game where he had plenty of people cheering for him on the sidelines.”
Sports becoming more than a game
Johnson realized how important sports were for not only the community, but the individual, to heal.
“This is one game that is most like life-dealing with adversities, dealing with a group,” Johnson said. “It is the value of the team first-that common goal mentality. The camaraderie of working hard together; suffering through the same discomforts – it bands you.”
For Johnson, his coaching style and outlook on his players will remain the same despite community and world-wide tragedy. That it’s not teaching about the ball, it’s teaching through the ball.
Goodman also sees the bigger picture sports have provided not only for her children, but for the community of Ridgewood.
“Sports are a lot more than physical activity. It’s the values of team work, commitment, leadership- not letting teammates down,” Goodman said. “Ridgewood embraces that-to see the total value for the child. It’s not about learning to swing a bat. The vast majority of kids are not getting scholarships, but instead, emotional, shared values to teach each other.”