Life’s Goals

Guest essay by Rob Serra ’97

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The author celebrates after scoring a goal for the FDNY hockey team at the Nassau Coliseum in 2004. (Photo: Bill Bennett)


“Times like these we learn to live again”

-Foo Fighters

 

I know it’s cliche to point to a sporting event as a pivotal moment in one’s life, but that’s where I find myself. On April 3, 2004, I put my hockey bag in my Jeep and headed to Nassau Coliseum. I was nervous as hell and had no idea how the day would end. I just knew what it took for me to get there.

I started playing hockey when I was four years old. Whether it was in my basement, the street, the swamps of Staten Island or the ice rink, I just had to play. It was always my escape. And those long car rides to practice and games were really the only times I spent bonding with my mother. Raising three boys and working kept her busy. So I relished in the rides to North Jersey, Long Island and eventually Lake Placid. I imagine that she also enjoyed having that alone time with each of us.

As a father now, it’s hard to imagine encouraging my fourteen-year-old kid to leave home and chase his dreams. But my mom did just that, and that’s what made her so special.

In the spring of my freshman year, we were in Lake Placid for a tournament. After doing some research, my mom scheduled me an interview with Mr. Friedlander, the Headmaster at the Northwood School. He was this larger than life persona with a booming voice and a pipe always at hand. I sat nervously as he looked over my grades and test scores. After a long pause, he looked up and said “ I can’t remember the last time a young man showed up for an interview with a tie on. If I could get you some scholarship money would you like to come to school here?”

I looked at my mom, smiling, waiting for her to answer. “He asked you, not me,” she said.

I really enjoyed that first year. My mom sent me care packages every week, the people were really nice, and I got to play hockey eight days a week. Heading into my junior year I was feeling good. I had played in the Empire State Games that summer, and I felt ready to take that next step. That’s when life took over. I was sitting in one of the first classes of the year when I got called into the hallway where I saw my Aunt and Uncle. I had always heard people use the expression “my heart sank,” and, for the first time in my life, I felt it. All they could tell me was that mom had a heart attack and was in the hospital. It was a long ride to the hospital, not knowing if she survived. In retrospect, I’m glad we didn’t have cell phones back then, because for those five extra hours, to me, she was still alive.

I stayed at Northwood and continued playing hockey but my heart wasn’t in it anymore. The ice had always been my place to go and forget about life. Instead, it had become a reminder of what happens in life. I did make a half-hearted effort to try out in college, but I tore my MCL in training camp and finally admitted to myself that I had quit. My hockey bag stayed in the basement for the next four years.

Shortly after graduating from Hobart College, I entered the New York City Fire Academy. I knew that the FDNY had a hockey team, but I really didn’t know much about it. When I saw the tryouts listed in the department orders I figured I’d give it a shot. I got my skates sharpened, tossed my bag in the car and headed for Freeport, NY.

As I approached the Verrazano Bridge I could see fire and smoke pumping from one of the Twin Towers. Life had once again shown me her darkest side. Needless to say, my plans changed. I went home and swapped out my hockey bag for my bunker gear. After that day, I didn’t think much about hockey.

A year later, when tryouts came around, I figured I’d give it one more shot. Again I threw the bag in the car and headed to Long Island. This time I made it there, and I made the team, almost. I made the taxi squad. To say I was rusty would be an understatement. It took all year for me to feel like a hockey player again.

While I may not have cracked the lineup much that first year, I loved every second of it. We traveled the country playing in charity games and tournaments. I quickly realized that I found something special. Hockey players are a rare breed, and any one of us will attest that the bond amongst us is tangible. This applies even more so to the bond that firemen share. This was more than a team, it was — and still is — a family. And I was part of it.

My first year on the job was pretty tough. I realized just how much I missed being on the ice. More importantly, I realized that I needed that outlet. That offseason I really went after it. I was determined to earn my own jersey, and more importantly, dress for the “Big Game.”

I can see how some people could view a charity game between cops and firemen as meaningless. Those people have obviously never been to one of these games. Fellow Northwood Alumnus Mike Richter once told me that the 2002 FDNY vs NYPD game at MSG was the most intense hockey game he’d ever seen. Perhaps that was just hyperbole from one of the greatest American Hockey players of all time. Regardless, that game means a lot to a lot of people.

That day in 2004 however, the game meant a little more to me. I had more than just my hockey bag with me when I picked up our goalie, Kevin Ryan. I brought the hopes and dreams of a fifteen-year-old kid. I brought the guilt of giving up on hockey after my family had sacrificed so much. I brought heartache and trauma that I wasn’t yet ready to address. I brought the regret of being so far away from home when my mom died. I brought 10 years of pain. It was suffocating. If Kevin hadn’t kept reminding me to breathe, I might have stopped breathing altogether.

It may have been enough to pull that FDNY sweater over my head and step on the ice in front of a sold-out Nassau Coliseum. It may have been enough for my family to see me back out there chasing it.

But The Foo Fighters and fate had a little more in store for me.

Sometimes there’s a song that just seems to capture a moment in my life. I had noticed all season that every time I heard “Times Like These” on the way to a game I scored a goal. As luck would have it, as I stepped on the ice for the third period that song was playing. I felt a little extra hop in my stride. With 10 minutes left and the score tied at 3, I screamed down the ice following the play. Joe Florio fired a shot from the right wing and the rebound found my stick in the high slot. Before the rubber hit the twine the crowd erupted (the FD side at least). I’ve never jumped so high in my life. [Ed. note: the photo at the beginning of this essay was taken right after this goal.] We went on to win the game 5-3. After the buzzer sounded, I rushed to the net to hug Kevin. “You had me a little worried in the car. I didn’t think you were gonna make it, kid,” he said.

Neither did I.

I sat in front of my locker sipping Budweiser until the last guy left. I didn’t want anyone to see what was about to come. So I sat alone in that empty locker room and I let it go. I cried my first “good” cry. It was the kind of cry that reminds you that you are alive. I realized that I didn’t quit on my dreams after all. They just took me in a different direction. It seems silly, a goal, a game, but I realized why my mom left the decision up to me in the Headmaster’s office at Northwood School. She wanted me to live MY life.

Eventually, the tears stopped. I took a deep breath, looked down at my old hockey bag and smiled.

Serra from EpitomeRob Serra graduated from Northwood School in 1997. He is a retired New York City firefighter (FDNY Squad Co. 18). He is a board member of the Ray Pfeifer Foundation, which assists 9/11 first responders with medical needs not covered by insurance.

Photo: Rob’s senior portrait from the 1997 yearbook, Epitome.

 

 

 

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