Lincoln band of brothers looking for final win
As the sun set in Hempstead Monday, they stood together on the turf field at Shuart Stadium, laughing and joking. The final New York City practice had concluded and the 17th annual Empire Challenge, one of the highlights of their high school careers, was a mere 24 hours away.
So, too, is the end of a remarkable journey for this band of brothers from Lincoln.
“It’s our last game together, it’s going to be real special,” quarterback Jessel Jones said. “After the game, we’re probably going to hug and part ways. It’s going to be real fun. We’re going to go out here and try to win this game like we’re used to doing.”
The last time these six Railsplitters played a competitive game, they were celebrating the school’s first PSAL title since 1993 after beating Erasmus Hall, 20-12, at Yankee Stadium in December to complete an undefeated season.
It’s an experience that will last a lifetime.
“These guys gave up blood, sweat and tears for 13 straight games and I’m glad they’re here with me to get another victory,” wide receiver Denzel Duchenne said.
And it’s an experience some relieve often.
“I watched [the game] today, right before I came here,” Jones said. “Just looking back on it, seeing us working together and winning that game, the special moment we shared together along with Coach [Shawn] O’Connor and the coaching staff is real special.”
Jones, Duchenne, running back Kareem Folkes, center Arian Balidemic, offensive guard Armani Gordon and defensive tackle Robert Kitching are a special group, according to O’Connor, their coach at Lincoln and on the New York City squad.
After six years as an assistant in the Empire Challenge, O’Connor is finally the New York City head coach. That he is leading a squad that includes six of his Lincoln players makes the whole experience even more rewarding.
“When the season ended at Yankee Stadium I realized I had another game with these guys,” O’Connor said. “Now I don’t have anything else after this. It’s definitely bittersweet.”
Duchenne said he hasn’t gotten the chance to think about the inevitable end Tuesday night. He’s been having so much fun preparing for one last game with longtime and new teammates.
“It hasn’t hit me yet because I’m enjoying the atmosphere so much, but I know it’s going to hit me real soon,” Duchenne said.
“That’s probably going to be the sad part,” added Folkes. “After this game is over, none of us are playing together. That’s life. We’re all going to hang out and be friends, but this is our last football game together. We have to end it on the right note.”
Indeed, winning, according to the UMass-bound Kitching, is part of Lincoln’s culture. After an undefeated championship season, they aren’t trying to end their storied high school careers with a loss.
“I’m just going to remember this time with my brothers and play my heart out for them,” Kitching said.
“We can’t lose,” added Balidemic, one of NYC's captains. “It’s not an option at all.”
Win or lose, the Lincoln players will part ways Tuesday night, leaving Shuart Stadium in various directions to play in several colleges, from UMass to C.W. Post to Southern Connecticut to Virginia Union.
They may be going their separate ways, but, according to Gordon, the bond will remain tight.
"I love them, they really are like my brothers,” Gordon said. “I tell them all the time I’m going to miss them when I leave. I’m close with each and every one of them.”
Contact Dylan Butler at firstname.lastname@example.org
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