Talk about a rebuilding year. The New York City Fire Department football team starts its National Public Safety League season next week missing seven starters, 12 alums and two coaches. But the firemen are playing. Hell, yes, they're playing.

Says cornerback Mike Heffernan, whose brother John was among the Bravest who died in the collapse of the World Trade Center towers, "Somebody said to me, 'Probably not going to be a team this season, huh, Mike?' I told him, 'We'll have a team if we only have 10 guys. We're playing.'"

Most of the guys on the team have a nasty case of the WTC cough, which is what you get from digging week after week, up to 18 hours a day, and inhaling dust, smoke, glass particles, asbestos and, indeed, microscopic remains of their fallen comrades. But the guys are playing. "Damn right," says fullback Tom Narducci. "It's tradition."

But how? Forget about replacing the players. How do you replace the men? How does starting cornerback Danny Foley replace the starting cornerback on the other side -- his brother, Tommy?

Last season, if it wasn't Danny pulling Tommy out of the pile, it was Tommy pulling Danny out. "That was the most fun I ever had playing football," says Danny, 28, the younger of the two by four years. "We both played high school and college, so we never got to see each other play. On this team, we were always together."

After 10 straight days of digging through the rubble, it was Danny who found Tommy. One last time, Danny pulled Tommy out of the pile. "When we found him," says Danny, "it was kind of a relief. I promised my mom I wasn't coming home without Tommy -- and I didn't. But a lot of families had nobody to bury."

Play football? How will they even get a play off? They lost their No. 1 and 1A quarterbacks, Paddy Lyons and Tom Cullen. It was Lyons who came into the game last May against the Orange County (Calif.) Lawmen and rescued his teammates. They trailed 14-0, but he led them to a 28-21 win. He was good at that kind of thing. He was with Squad 252, along with cornerback Tarel Coleman, and his friends believe those two rescued a lot of people that day before the steel-and-concrete sky collapsed on them.

How do you replace tight end Keith Glascoe, who was so good only a bum shoulder kept him off the New York Jets' roster in the early '90s? Or big lineman Bronko Pearsall, who insisted on singing Wild Rover after every game, win or lose?

Who's going to kick now that Billy Johnston is gone? Everybody called him Liam because he looked so bloody Irish. He was automatic on extra points, which was a luxury. Hell, there were years when the Bravest had to go for two after every touchdown just because they didn't have a kicker. Then they found Johnston.

They found Johnston again three weeks into the digging. Heffernan was there, and he helped carry his teammate out.

Even if you can replace the players who were lost, how do you replace all the other guys who made the team so damn much fun? Tommy Haskell was the tight ends coach and wrote the team newsletter. Mike Cawley set up the after-game beer parties. Danny Suhr, the first fireman to die that day, was the treasurer. Offensive coordinator Mike Stackpole lost his brother, Tim. Linebacker Zach Fletcher lost his twin brother, Andre.

How do you go on when so many guys are dead that you can't even retire their jerseys because you wouldn't have enough left to dress the team? How do you play a game draped in sorrow like that?

Came the first team meeting, and the club didn't get anywhere near its usual 60 guys. It got 120. All the lineup holes were patched. Guys who had retired signed up again. Guys who'd been asked 10 times said yes on the 11th. You cry together at enough funerals, you figure you can bleed together on a football field, too. One thing about firemen, they don't let each other fight battles alone.

Talk about a comeback year. "You've got to understand," says the team's president, Neil Walsh. "We all go to each other's weddings, christenings, graduations. I broke your brother in, and your dad broke me in, and I carried your son out of the pile. We're all brothers."

Not long ago a third-grade teacher found the team's water boy -- Walsh's son Ryan -- sobbing uncontrollably in the boys' bathroom. "To him, all those guys were his uncles," says Walsh. "He couldn't handle losing them all in one day."

Some holes are easier to patch than others.

Issue date: March 25, 2002