For 16 of his 38 years as a heating plant technician and shop steward at Breukelen Houses, from 1970-86, James Spicer coached a little league football team, with help from Local 237. Following is Spicer’s story of the Falcons.
It started with the kids tearing up the grounds at Breukelen Houses. The tenants didn’t like that they were messing up the grounds and throwing the ball under their windows.
I was a fireman (now called heating plant technician) at the project—I worked there for 38 years—and I also lived there. I asked the kids why they didn’t play in the park across the street, the Five Diamond Park. They said no one wanted to coach them. I had played semipro football with the Black Hawks in Brooklyn years before, so I said I would.
The team was called the Falcons. We started out with 30 or 40 kids. We had nothing. Some of the kids didn’t even have football shoes, never mind uniforms. Their parents were poor and didn’t have extra money for Local 237 those things.
Here’s where the union, Local 237, comes in. Like I said, we had nothing. A nice Project man, a maintenance worker at Breukelen Houses, a business agent, Tom Abruzzo, said, Spicer, why don’t you go see the union president, Barry Feinstein?
I said, Why would one of the biggest labor leaders in the state want to see me? He said I should try, so I called Barry. He told me to come down to the office. I did, I sat down and I told him about the team, that we wanted to play in the league (it was the Narrows Channel Civic Association Football League) but we had no uniforms, we had nothing. The only thing Barry said when I finished was, How can we help? What do you want us to do?
I said, We need uniforms. Barry said, I’m going to give you money for uniforms every year until you stop. The union did it for 16 years. We started in 1970 and continued until 1986. We also had cheerleaders, and the union put out money for our cheerleading teams, too.
The kids were all from public housing, from Breukelen, Brownsville, Pinks, Bayview, and Glenwood Houses. Some of them walked a pretty far distance. We practiced four days a week and played once a week from August to December. Anyone who wanted to could try out for the team. We had about 45 kids every year, from ages 11 to 13. I gave every kid a chance to play in every game. Everyone gets to play, I said. They’re not there to be pros, they’re there to enjoy themselves and to learn how to be part of a team. We didn’t have to win — but we did.
We won 15 championships in the League. We played in every championship game for 16 years and only lost once, in 1975, to a team in Harlem, the Harlem Chargers. We played against the Pop Warner Football League and the Buddy Young Football League. We represented the Triborough Football League in Downing Stadium.
One year the Daily News gave a trophy for the All-League Championship, and we gave it to Barry. I came to the office with eight kids, in uniform. We went to Barry’s office. He was surprised, and very gracious. He told the boys, You’re doing a great job, keep it up, the Teamsters are proud of you.
A lot of children who played on our team now work for the Housing Authority and are members of Local 237. One of the young men who played against my team later worked for me as an HPT; he’s still there—Robinson. Lisa Desheer, one of our cheerleaders, is a borough coordinator in Queens for NYCHA. We also have firefighters and police officers. One of our team members manages a McDonald’s in Canarsie. Another is a bank manager at Chase.
Playing football kept the kids out of trouble. I saw the kid who manages the McDonald’s the other day, and he said, “Mr. Spicer, you kept us straight, you kept us on the straight and narrow.”
I had rules. I told the kids, Parents lead. If you mess up at home, you’ll mess up on the field, you’ll mess up in life. You need to know there are consequences to what you do, good or bad. If you want to be a team player, that goes for everywhere. You can’t be a team player here and then go home and not be a team player at home.
I feel that because we had the team, there’s Little League football in Brooklyn now. Our Little League team started it, the Falcons. The Falcons no longer exist. They formed other organizations that combined not only the leagues but neighborhoods. They’re huge organizations with fields all over Brooklyn.
The kids who played over those 16 years grew up. Many have families now, some are coaching Little League. I walk by and they call out, Hey, Mr. Spicer, want to coach?
The Little League players of today are the union members of tomorrow. Many of our team members are now members of 237, the best team in the world. That’s the legacy of Local 237. We had nothing, we wouldn’t have been able to play. The only thing the union asked was, How can we help?
A Personal Note from James Spicer
“If I may add a personal note for the members of the team, for the parents, and that is to ask them to say a prayer for Walter Desheer. He coached the team with me for all those years. Now he’s seriously ill. We hope he’ll get better. People can send cards to him at 145-62 180 St., Springfield Gardens, NY 11434.”