‘I’m so proud of these kids’

A miracle South Bronx high school football team overcame a practically insurmountable lack of resources to win the state championship game.

The Cardinal Hayes Cardinals — which played all its games on the road this season because the city refused to repair its home field at a public park in the shadow of Yankee Stadium — crushed Buffalo’s St. Francis Red Raiders 40-22 Saturday in New York’s Catholic league title game.

With the win, the Cards became the first city football team to win the prestigious AAA division state championship, considered one of the top honors in Northeast high school sports.

“We teach resilience here – that’s our biggest thing,” Cardinal Hayes Coach C.J. O’Neill told The Post after the game.

“Obviously the tougher the road, the greater the achievement. We just kept moving forward and chopping way, and I’m so proud of these kids.”

Under normal circumstances, the Cardinals (11-2), as the higher seed, would have hosted the big game at Macombs Dam Park’s football field – which was built a decade-and-a-half ago as part of a giveback to one the nation’s poorest communities when the original Yankee Stadium was relocated across the street in 2009.  

But the city Parks Department fumbled to maintain Macombs’ synthetic turf field, critics say.

Coach C.J. O’Neill celebrates after the win. JC Rice
Cardinal Hayes’ football team cannot even practice at its longtime home field at Macombs Dam Park because of its poor condition and filed with large divots and other gaps. J.C. Rice

It is filled with so many divots and tears that the coaches felt it was too dangerous to even practice there. To make matters worse, the park’s lighting system is out on one side of the field.

So the Cardinals – who bounced back from a dreadful 2-8 record last season – played most “home” games this season more than a half-hour drive away at Columbia University, the site of Saturday’s championship game. The rest were played at other sites.

O’Neill said his school asked the city Parks Department multiple times to replace the Macombs turf but quickly realized “it wasn’t a priority” for the agency — despite the injury risk to players.

The Cardinal Hayes varsity football team won the state championship Saturday, despite playing all its games away from home because of problems with its longtime field — which is supposed to be maintained by the city Parks Department. Courtesy of Cardinal Hayes High School
A Cardinal dives for the endzone in Saturday’s title game. J.C. Rice
The Cardinals celebrate on the sidelines of Columbia University’s Baker Athletics Complex. JC Rice

Instead, parks workers have attempted patchwork jobs, including filling the turf’s gaps with black rubber pellets and gravel, coaches said.

“It been devastating for our kids,” said O’Neill, who has coached at the $8,100-a-year all-boys school for the past 26 years. “We don’t have a fancy stadium like a lot of the other schools we play, but playing across the street from Yankee Stadium was a great source of pride for them.”

Cardinal Hayes faced other obstacles on its road to success, including:

  • An accidental fire in the coach’s office that required replacing equipment and holding meetings in a gymnasium hallway.
  • A broken-down weight room that forced players to lift weights – rain or shine – in the school’s parking lot.
  • When daylight savings time ended last month, the team began schlepping nearly a mile on foot to the lighted Mott Haven Community College’s football field each day.
The team practicing on the Macombs Dam field. Courtesy of Cardinal Hayes Football

The neighborhood lost more than 25 acres of parkland after the Yankees in 2005 were greenlighted to build their new ballpark. City and state officials then promised to eventually create more parkland than what was lost, but so far only 21 acres have been delivered, including a new Macombs Dam Park built along the hallowed ground of the old Yankee Stadium that the Parks Department is responsible for maintaining.

“These kids deserve an apology,” said Geoffrey Croft, a longtime city parks watchdog who fought unsuccessfully to block the Yankee Stadium relocation project. “Many come from poor families, and now they’re forced to travel far away to play because of the city’s neglect — including what might be the biggest game of their lives.”

Rob Huntington, a retired bond trader at Credit Suisse who volunteers as an assistant coach, said he hopes the city fixes the field soon — not only for the Cardinal Hayes, but the entire South Bronx.

One of many tears in Macombs Dam Park’s turf field. J.C. Rice

“We’re trying to break the poverty cycle up here,” said Huntington, who is also board member at Student Sponsor Partners, a charity that mentors and helps pay student tuitions at Cardinal Hayes and other city parochial schools.

“If football helps these kids go on to college, that’s a life changer for them.”

Greg McQueen, a Parks Department spokesman, said the agency performed 32 repairs on the field since 2018, adding part of the reason it’s been hard to maintain is because it sits atop a parking garage roof. He also said the department plans to reach out to Cardinal Hayes to solicit input as it “explores ways to maintain this field to provide community members with the best possible experience.”

Brian Smith, the Yankees’ senior vice president of community relations, said the Bronx Bombers value their long-standing relationship with the school and was unaware the field was in such bad shape until contacted by The Post.

The Cardinals celebrate after their state championship victory. JC Rice
The Cardinals crushed the Buffalo’s St. Francis Red Raiders 40-22 on Saturday. JC Rice

He left the door open to the Yankees coming to the rescue.

“We welcome the opportunity to hear from our partners to see what we can do provide some assistance and address this,” said Smith, adding the team recently agreed to donate $25,000 to help spruce up and maintain Elston Howard Field, a baseball field named after the former Yankee great at Macombs Dam Park.

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