The greatest game ever played on East 161st Street did not involve the New York Yankees.
It was not a professional game, and it wasn’t played for money or fame, but for the admiration and respect for a mentor and a friend.
The 2017 season for the undefeated JV Cardinals, brought the team a City Championship, but the feat, which they hope to accomplish again in 2018, happened while the team was recovering from a tragedy.
“When adversity hit, we stuck together and grew stronger together,” said Hayesman, Zhaequon Brown.
At the beginning of the season, the team’s offensive coordinator and one of the school’s science teachers, Roy Rieser, lost his grandmother, 103-year-old Jean Bricker, who was dearer to him than anyone else in his life.
Rieser was supposed to spend the summer in Florida with her, like he did every year, but with her blessing, stayed on Grand Concourse to help the team, vowing to see her as soon as the season ended.
On the morning of their third game, still undefeated, he learned the sad news, Bricker had passed away.
Cardinal Hayes won the game and scored a season high 56-points, shutting out Christ the King Regional that evening.
Rieser missed the game for the funeral services but returned the very next Tuesday.
By the next game not only had the team learned about Coach Rieser’s grandmother, but their fellow teammate, Shawn Hylton, also suffered the death of his grandmother the same week.
“Coach is like a role model to us and we wanted to be there for him,” said Davon Barnes, a JV player on the team.
The team beat Xaverian High School that afternoon 42 to 0, with two new angels looking over them, some of the players felt.
The team presented Rieser with a card extending their condolences, and afterwards attended the wake for Shawn’s grandmother.
“Life is about who you are when things go wrong and your ability to push through,” said Rieser of the advice he had given the students since he met them in 2016.
Through the season, the team started every game remembering their recently departed loved ones. They felt like family to Coach Rieser and Shawn Hylton.
They carried that motivation and the leadership imparted by head coach Abdurrahim Ali, and coaches Adrien Cabrera and Dana Wilmouth, to the semifinal game against St. Anthony’s High School.
That game was played on one of the coldest days of November. Prior to starting warmups, every player poured their heart out to each other in the locker room, some even breaking out in tears, reaffirming their brotherly bond.
After leaving the locker room to walk to their field on East 161st Street across the street from Yankee Stadium, the frigid temperature was no longer a factor.
They advanced to a stadium filling championship game, ironically enough, against their longtime rival, Archbishop Stepinac, the following week.
They won the championship despite injuries to several key teammates because each Hayesman on the JV Cardinals was prepared to go the distance for their coach and their brother.