LAKEWOOD, N.J. – On a hot and sticky July morning, Michelle and Anthony Burgos set out to meet the future of Lakewood High School football.
In the cool of her Chevy Suburban, Michelle used the 15-minute drive to go back over her agenda. She had plenty to tell this new coach about the team he was inheriting. But after more than 20 years of cooking team breakfasts, recruiting parents to staff the concession stand and watching a once-proud program slowly crumble, mostly she had her doubts.
The Lakewood Piners had not won a game in nearly three years. They had lost 70 of their last 75. In barely a decade — as Lakewood bled students and dropped from the ranks of the Shore Conference's big schools down to the B Division and then to C with the smallest — the team had already churned through five coaches.
Schools in neighboring towns deployed well-equipped squads of 60 or 70 players, with money to install lights that filled their bleachers on weekend nights. The Piners would scrape to field two dozen kids this season. And at some away games, the team and coaching staff would come close to outnumbering their fans.
The hard truth was that Lakewood — not only the team, but the town — just wasn't what it once had been. So, forgive a woman who'd invested herself in the place for being a little skeptical. How was a coach who knew nothing about Lakewood going to come to its rescue?
Inside the living room of the neat white-and-green house on Nicholas Road, the Burgoses sat on the sofa across from the new coach, Warren Wolf, and accepted a cold drink from Wolf's wife, Peg. They looked around. Gleaming trophies and game balls decorated shelves alongside the fireplace. Plaques and photos attested to a record of winning championships and molding young men. You couldn't help but admire Wolf's accomplishments as coach of the Brick Township Green Dragons.
Brick was right next to Lakewood, but Burgos doubted Wolf grasped the reality he was embracing.
Burgos didn't know it, but she had an ally in Peg Wolf, who'd already told her husband that however good his intentions, this new coaching job was a mistake.
"Listen. You've got to understand. You're coming to Lakewood. You're coming to a different town," Michelle Burgos said, after the coach finished laying out the methods that had served his Dragons so well. "They are not the Dragons. They are the Piners. And you're talking about a whole different breed of boy."
She looked across the coffee table — its top a carved replica of the Brick football field — to see if Wolf understood.
The future of Lakewood football had heard her loud and clear, thanks to both his hearing aids. But there'd be no shaking his resolve. Warren Wolf had never been more ready for a challenge. And it could not have come at a better time.
In a few weeks, he'd be 83 years old.
There's an interesting story Warren Wolf tells about himself.
He was still the coach at Brick Township, his team grinding toward the end of a season spent on the bubble. The boys made Wolf proud. And it left him with "such a rotten, bitter taste in my mouth" when the Dragons lost the last two games, capped by a draining 2-point defeat to crosstown archrival Brick Memorial. That wasn't a fair ending. The kids deserved better. So Wolf ordered stickers urging his team to "Recapture the Glory." Next year, he told them, they'd get it done.
There was just one small detail he left out: Until that last loss, he had planned to announce his retirement.
Instead, Wolf came back. And he didn't retire until a year later, in December 2008, after leading Brick to a seven-point victory over Memorial in his 494th and last game as the Dragons' coach.
Even then the story wasn't really over. And that is testament to a career that, in this stretch of suburbia midway between New York and Philadelphia that not long ago was little more than woods and egg farms and bungalows, makes Wolf the stuff of folklore.
Warren Wolf's life has been intertwined with New Jersey high school football for so long that he recalls games as a player against an ingenious but unknown coach — a guy named Vince Lombardi. He has played father figure to so many boys over the years that he's called regularly now to attend the oldest ones' funerals.
It's not enough to say that he retired as the state's winningest football coach ever. To appreciate Wolf's feat, consider that his record at Brick (361-122-11) was compiled across six different decades, starting when Dwight Eisenhower was president of a country that still had only 48 states.
"I think football is the best thing to prepare a boy to become a man," Wolf says.
The question is, what did it prepare Wolf for?
"I'll probably walk away from things," Wolf told reporters when he retired. "Whoever's going to be the coach, I don't want to be ... looking over his shoulder, things like that. I'm going to divorce myself. That's my plan."
There was just one last thing. Wolf is an institution in Brick, having served not just as its coach, but its deputy superintendent of schools and mayor over the years. And when he recommended the district hire one of his assistants — "a Brick boy" — to replace him, he expected the suggestion would be followed. When it became clear the school board was leaning toward an outsider, he asked for his job back. When the offer was rejected and the new coach named, Wolf and an ally ran and beat the school board president and vice president who advocated the hiring.
But that didn't solve his essential dilemma. Through the fall of 2009, he sat in the stands at local high school and college games, free to enjoy life as a spectator. But he was bored and frustrated. He missed hollering at players. He missed nights lying in bed devising game strategy. He even missed the smell of the locker room.
Then he heard about the opening one town over, at hard-luck Lakewood.
It was anything but a natural fit. What do you get when you put together an 83-year-old white coach accustomed to winning and deep community support, and a team made almost entirely of black teenagers, many from single-parent families, whose greatest achievement in football was showing up for practice?
Clearly, though, this was a team that needed a coach.
And it was just as clear to this coach that he needed a team.
By the end of the 2009 season — when Lakewood's losing streak reached 27 games — arguments broke out in the Piners' huddle after opponents scored. On Fridays before games, when players wore their white-and-royal-blue jerseys to school, classmates snickered, calling them losers while passing in the halls. By the time the season ended, the roster had dwindled to fewer than 20 players.
"When we were down 40-0, nobody cared," said DaQuan Kenney, a 6-3 defensive end whose 235-pound stature is tempered by a wide grin framed with braces. "They thought it was a joke."
The longer the losses went on, the harder it was to convince students to come out for this year's team. That left the Piners counting on a tight-knit core of players used to the emotional punishment and motivated by traits few seemed to appreciate.
First, despite what people said, they knew how to win.
Ahmier Dupree, the team's soft-spoken senior running back, was the fastest high schooler in Ocean County in the 200 meters. The son of a corrections officer at the state prison in Rahway, Ahmier savored winning and not just because recruiters were watching. At nearly every meet and game, he performed for an audience of one — the nephew in the stands who called Ahmier his role model.
Then there was Kenney, widely considered a Division I college prospect, who played a key role on the Lakewood basketball squad that had won a state basketball title the previous spring. Kenney, a senior, was joined on that team by sophomore quarterback Tyrice Beverette, who had twice gone to the national championship playing Pop Warner football.
The Piners' core had at least one other unappreciated strength. As bad as the last few years had been, they still found a satisfaction in football that nothing else matched.
Nobody exemplified that better than middle linebacker Jimmy Jackson. Jackson began playing organized football at 10, despite being born with a malformed right arm much shorter and weaker than his left. Where his uniform ends just below his knees, Jackson sports long scars on both calves, left when doctors removed nerves to try to make his arm whole. He is a ferocious tackler.
"It's my dream playing football," says Jackson, son of a nurse and a paper factory worker. "I like being out there hitting. I love the excitement, the crowd ... I don't let anything stop me."
On the first day of practice in August, there wasn't a player on the roster who had been around for the team's last win. Every one of them, though, had heard about the new coach and his decades of winning.
But the man who showed up was far less imposing than the reputation.
Warren Wolf is slightly built at 165 pounds and when he walks the field, his white-tufted head hangs toward his chest as if it's a little too heavy for his neck. At practice, he barks orders — often repeating the same phrase twice — while pacing rapidly but slightly off-kilter, his body ticking forward on each stride before his feet catch up.
Wolf began the first practice by demanding the Piners relearn one of football's most basic skills — the low crouch known as the three-point stance — a stark lesson in how far they had to go. Sweating in the summer heat, no one seemed to realize the irony of his arrival as the Piners' would-be savior.
Lakewood football owns a proud past. In the lobby outside the gym, alongside the metal detector used to vet crowds who pack in for basketball games, Athletic Director John Craddox displays the trophy for winning the 1986 state football championship. As recently as 2000, the team finished 8-2. But a look back at long-forgotten records makes it clear that the program's collapse began with one disastrous game.
Lakewood entered that game — the sixth of the 2002 season — undefeated, and was rolling toward another victory. Then one of its receivers dropped a pass. The Piners were certain the pass was incomplete and stopped running, waiting for the whistle. But it never came and the opponent kept going, picking up the fumbled ball and running it in for a touchdown. The Piners lost the lead and then the game, 20-14. They never won again that season. It got worse from there.
But it all started with that one defeat — to the Brick Dragons and their legendary coach, Warren Wolf.
Now Wolf and his assistants were talking up "Piner Pride." But it would not be easy to recapture.
The first game with Wolf at the helm comes fast — a Sept. 11 match at Holmdel. By halftime, the Piners are already down 30-0. Last year that might have been enough to get teammate arguing with teammate. This time, the Piners stage a comeback, scoring twice.
But it's not nearly enough. With :36 left on the clock, Holmdel's quarterback throws for yet another touchdown. Now Wolf knows how it feels to be a Piner.
Score: Reality 1, Lakewood 0.
In the days after the loss, a few players quit. On the practice field Monday, Wolf learns another is academically ineligible, further shrinking a roster that has already fallen below 30.
"It's different," Wolf says, asked how this compares to the teams of 80 or more he once fielded at Brick. He closes his eyes and presses his fingers against his temples, a gesture his friends recognize as a longtime trademark of frustration. "That's not a complaint. But it's different."
The next game is at home against Monsignor Donovan High School, coached by one of the many Wolf proteges around the Shore Conference. Dan Duddy played for Wolf at Brick in the early 1970s, then came back as a teacher and assistant. Wolf calls Duddy "my third son."
"I'm scared to death," Duddy says, as his players stretch before the game. "I'd rather be playing the New York Giants twice today than playing the Lakewood High School football team, because he's a mystical man. He always finds a way to win."
Lakewood has scheduled this home game on a Friday not long after school is dismissed, in hopes students will come out to watch. Despite a perfect 80-degree afternoon, there's just a thin crowd scattered across the stands. But days like this are enough to get Lakewood's old-timers thinking about the way things used to be.
Long before Wolf start coaching football, Lakewood had a rich history.
In the late 1800s, the town along Lake Carasaljo became a destination, drawing Rockefellers and Roosevelts to resort hotels like the Laurel-in-the-Pines, lured by temperatures said to be 10 degrees warmer than back in New York.
Lakewood's population grew, attracted by the jobs at the hotels and nearby poultry farms. On Thanksgiving Day each year, crowds of 5,000 packed into the high school's games. By the early 1960s, the town accommodated growing Jewish and black populations along with Eastern European and Italian neighbors. In 1963, students at the high school elected a black football player, Joe Brown, as junior class president. The next year, Brown's team went 8-0.
"That was our Camelot back then," Brown recalls, "back in the day."
In the years after Lakewood claimed its sole football championship in 1986, "the bleachers were filled for every game," says Michelle Burgos, who began volunteering for team activities when son Kimu played in the mid-'80s.
But by then, the town was changing.
The hotels had all closed. And the town had been rediscovered, this time by Hasidic Jews, who began flocking to Beth Medrash Govoha, an institute of religious study founded in 1943 that has since become one of the largest such yeshivas in the world.
Hasidic buyers offered premiums for homes in Lakewood, starting in its most stable neighborhoods, and the Orthodox population swelled. But many of those who remained, particularly black families in older neighborhoods of battered single-story houses and apartment buildings, felt marginalized. The change in Lakewood's makeup has continued with the arrival of a large Hispanic population.
The town's changing mix had a direct impact on the football team. Most Hasidim, while electing a majority to the local school board, send their children to private religious schools. The town's Mexican families send their children to the public schools, but their sons play soccer, not football.
"During my years here, we had many white players, mostly middle-class. Hey, they cut their teeth on football, kids who went to camps and clinics," says the athletic director, Craddox, who's been at Lakewood for 31 years and whose son, Jarrod, is on this year's team. Craddox, who is black, coached the freshman football team in the mid-80s.
"Now, these kids ... a lot of them are coming from single-parent homes and some of the parents' emphasis is not on winning. It's on 'you got my boy from 2 to 6 until I get home and I know he's not in a gang.'"
Burgos, president of the team's Huddle Club, recalls how in the old days, nearly all the team parents traveled to away games and volunteered to help with activities and fundraisers. This season, she found just five parents willing to take a turn behind the team's concession stand. Only one showed up.
Wolf never had to think about such things at Brick. But in the minutes before the Monsignor Donovan game, when he steps to the front of the cramped cinderblock box that serves as the Piners' locker room, he's focused only on football.
"Do we have what it takes to win?" growls Wolf, the only coach on either staff to show up in a jacket and tie. "Now we're going to find out."
The Piners come out strong, scoring first on an 87-yard run by Dupree.
"Who rocks the house? The Piners rock the house!" Lakewood's cheerleaders chant. "And when the Piners rock the house, we rock it ALLLLLL the way down!"
At the half, Lakewood is on top, albeit just 8-7. Still, the team's backers are beaming. When was the last time the Piners even had a halftime lead?
"Years! Years and years!" exults Brown, the long-ago player who's back on the sidelines as Wolf's aide-de-camp.
It won't be easy protecting that lead. Even early in the season, Lakewood has shown that defense is its weakness, frustrating coaches with missed tackles. And with such a small roster — 13 Piners play both offense and defense and 8 core players never come off the field — the clock is Lakewood's greatest enemy.
In the second half, Mon Don scores three touchdowns to Lakewood's one. Lakewood's players trudge off the field, with Wolf trailing, eyes cast down.
"I really feel bad for coach. I wish he wouldn't have done this," a long-time Wolf ally, Dave Vivino, says sadly, watching the procession. "He can't take this kind of tension."
Craddox, the athletic director, mulls the defeat from a golf cart outside the locker room.
"I have to be careful that the coach understands he's not a miracle worker," he says. "It'd be a great story to say he came and went undefeated. But that ain't happening."
Score: Reality 2, Lakewood 0.
A week later, the Piners score two quick touchdowns, but lose again, 42-14 to Wall Township, extending the streak to 30 games.
"We've got to start jelling — 11 guys moving the ball, all in the same direction at the same time," Wolf says. "A lot of the work is getting the boys to believe in themselves."
After a bye and two weeks of practice, the next game on the schedule is away against Jackson Liberty, an expansive new high school with a lighted stadium in a fast-growing town, coached by yet another Wolf disciple. Liberty has already defeated two of the teams that have beaten the Piners. But when Lakewood's players arrive at school on game day wearing their jerseys, they voice measured confidence.
"We're going to win a game this year. I'm certain we're going to win more than one game — as long as we keep working hard as a family," says Melvin Vankpana, a wide receiver who has little contact with his father and lives with an aunt because his mother is a nursing student in Philadelphia.
Vankpana and several of his teammates refer to one another as each other's brothers. But they've admitted Wolf to the family, as one-part father figure — for bringing discipline they say the team was sorely lacking — and one-part eccentric uncle.
In the locker room, studying game tapes, they take notice when he refuses a chair and joins them cross-legged on the cement floor. In practice, they smile when he occasionally slips and call them the Dragons. One afternoon when music fills the locker room, Wolf gets them laughing when he shuffles and sways across the floor.
"He doesn't act like he's old. He acts like he's a kid," Ahmier Dupree says. "For an 83-year-old guy, he's got moves."
But will Wolf's coaching moves be enough? Tonight Lakewood's roster is down to just 20 players and when they take the field they note that the host team has groomed the grass extra high. There's no evidence of an intentional effort to slow the Piners' running game. But to some it confirms a longheld conviction that, along with fate, opponents and officials are out to sabotage the Piners.
Jackson Liberty scores quickly and its second touchdown, on a long run up the middle, leaves Wolf growling on the sidelines.
This coach is a delegator, usually leaving it to his assistants to direct action on the field. But watching his Piners seemingly unable to respond, Wolf angrily commandeers the headset of veteran offensive coordinator Al LaMura and begins calling plays.
"We were nowhere!" Wolf scolds the team at halftime. "I want to be proud of you. I want to pat you on the back. But you've got to start to show your teammates something, your coaches something, your fans something!"
Dupree answers the call, running the ball in for a touchdown. With 10:43 in the fourth period, the game is still within reach. But their opponents exploit openings in Lakewood's exhausted defense; Jackson Liberty scores, then scores again and the game is over.
Before they board the bus, Wolf tries to cheer his players. But the following Friday, Lakewood sacrifices itself to Pinelands, 38-20. The season is half gone and opportunities for wins are dwindling.
A week later against Point Pleasant Boro, the Piners play as well as they have all season. With 1:12 left, they are down by just five when Beverette rolls right and heaves the ball to an open Vankpana — who gets shoved hard in the back. From the Lakewood bench, it looks like blatant pass interference. But there's no call, despite loud protests. The clock runs out. For the 33rd consecutive time, they are losers.
On the sideline, Vankpana, Dupree and their Piner brothers stand dirty and exhausted by the battle. This time, though, they are not hanging their heads.
They are crying.
Score: Reality 6, Lakewood 0.
"We should've won."
All week, between classes, at home and on the practice field, the Piners, their coaches and boosters repeat it like a mantra. Today, they have what could be the best chance left to finally avenge their demons. Lakewood is back at home for a Saturday afternoon matchup against Central Regional High School, which also enters the game 0-6. It's worth noting that the last the time the Piners won — on Sept. 29, 2007 — it came against Central.
Still, the Golden Eagles boast a roster of 65, including Kalyph Hardy, a junior tailback with more 1,000 career yards rushing.
In the Lakewood locker room, assistant coaches step before the team one by one — pleading, berating, screaming — until the room vibrates with adrenaline.
"Hey fellas, we've GOT to stop it! It STOPS today! I can't TAKE it no more!" shouts L.J. Clark, an assistant coach who played for the Piners during their last winning seasons. Clark — whose 7-year old son Lamier is here today as the team's sidekick and ballboy — has been on the coaching staff for every one of Lakewood's losses.
"What time is it?" one of the Piners bellows.
"What time is it?"
The Piners take the field on a brilliant 60 degree afternoon, unusually mild for the day before Halloween. It's Senior Day and although the crowd is still thin, many more parents than usual are here to cheer on their sons. The game is tight until the second quarter when Beverette, Lakewood's lanky quarterback, takes the snap at the five-yard line, finds room on the side and runs it in for a touchdown. But Central retaliates quickly and soon threatens again.
With :04 left in the half, the Golden Eagles are deep in Lakewood territory, lined up to kick a field goal. But the snap is off-target, robbing Central of a precious second and forcing a throw — intercepted by the Piners' DaQuan Kenney. The clock doesn't matter anymore, as Kenney takes off from the very center of the field with little room to run. But Central appears stunned. The yards fall away. Kenney's on the Eagles' 40, the 30, the 10. Touchdown!
"That's the end of the first half," the announcer crows. "Lakewood Piners, 12. Central Regional Golden Eagles, 7."
In the locker room, Wolf warns the players that they must come out smart and alert. The Piners' faithful, however small in number, demand blood.
The Golden Eagles "don't want to be the ones!" shouts Leonard Thomas, president of the Lakewood school board, father of No. 54 Jalen Thomas, and a member of the 1986 championship squad, as the Piners file back on to the field. "They're going to fight! They're going to kick! They're going to claw. They're not going to lay down.
"You've got to knock them down!"
Central Regional must be listening. With 1:42 left in the third quarter, they score and reclaim the lead. The Piners take over, then bobble a snap and the ball rolls back into their own endzone for a safety, extending Central's lead to 15-12.
"They've got to score a touchdown — fast," says Ed Rosen, who was the Piners' defensive coordinator for the state championship in 1986 and has returned to join them on the sidelines. He paces nervously, as Central drives to the Lakewood 20.
"This is it. This is the game right here."
This time, Lakewood's defense holds. Now, though, the Piners are running out of clock.
Beverette runs the ball twice, moving the Piners to their own 41 with 3:28 to go. On the next play, Dupree gets the ball and the track star tilts forward, probing for an opening. He finds it, gaining speed, his legs pumping into a full-out sprint that ends 59 yards later in the end zone. The Piner family is jumping up and down on the sidelines. When the team scores again seconds later on a two-point conversion, teammates wrap each other and their coaches in bearhugs.
"I'm coming down!" Greg Elias, who has been calling plays from the press box at the top of the stands, shouts in the coordinator's headset.
Control of the ball switches from the Eagles to the Piners and back to the Eagles again.
"It can't be easy, can it?" Clark groans.
But with 17 seconds left, the Piners' defense stands firm, and the clock expires.
"After three years and 33 losses, the Piners win!" the announcer exults.
Michelle Burgos rushes out of the concession booth, but at 5-foot-2 she is swept up in the commotion. Then her 6-2 husband arrives, wrapping her in a hug. Michelle cries as the two of them jump up and down, "like two little kids."
Back on the field, Piner players and coaches scream, holding their fingers to the sky, surrounding Warren Wolf, his hearing aids in place and tie still straight, his face bathed in a wide grin.
"You know what it's like to lose because we've been losing for a long time," the coach crows. "But today, you have the feeling of winning — and what joy is all about!"
Wolf turns to find Sam Christopher, 82, a long-ago Piner player who went on to chronicle the town for decades as an editor and reporter, leaning on a quad-cane at midfield and thrusting his hand forward in congratulations.
"Lakewood's not dead yet!" Wolf hollers, beaming.
"Hell no!" Christopher shouts. "You brought 'em back!"
If this was a fairy tale, the story would end there. But this is Lakewood, where reality dictates otherwise.
A week after ending their streak, the Piners traveled to Manasquan High School. Ahmier Dupree ran for 48 yards to give his team the early lead. Then Manasquan took over, trampling the Piners, 42-6.
The following Saturday, though, Lakewood recovered, gaining its second victory of the season, 42-14, against the winless Pleasantville Greyhounds.
That left only the team's 91st annual Thanksgiving morning game against Toms River South — "Home of the Hitting Indians." A long time ago, this was the Shore Conference's fiercest rivalry. At one matchup in the 1970s, South Coach Ron Signorino entered the stadium on horseback, in full war paint and wearing an Indian headdress. A crowd five-deep circled the fences, cheering him on.
But this year, the stands at Toms River were barely half-full and the home team entered the game 0-9. The Piners — winless against South since 2003 — brought a healthy crowd, but it seemed half were old friends of Wolf, wearing Brick green and white. The forecast called for rain, but two minutes after kickoff, the skies started shooting tiny pellets of ice instead.
Just 14 seconds in, Dupree ran 61 yards for a touchdown. But the Lakewood defense looked listless. By halftime, Toms River had taken the lead.
Back in the locker room, Wolf demanded that his team wake up. In the second half, they heeded his call. When the clock ran out to seal a 28-22 Lakewood victory, Ahmier Dupree and DaQuan Kenney converged on their 83-year-old coach.
"This whole team picked itself back up," Dupree said. Now they reached down, lifting a frail-looking Wolf off the artificial turf and carefully placed him on their broad shoulders.
Then the boys of fall piled on to the school bus for the ride back home. "I am so proud of you guys," Wolf told them.
The records would show that the 2010 Lakewood Piners won a few games, while notching yet another losing season. But Warren Wolf knew all about football records — and he knew better.
Adam Geller, a national writer for The Associated Press based in New York, can be reached at features(at)ap.org.