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In southern Dade County, survival is its own victory

The ball shot through the goal posts, sending a defiant message to the heavens.

We have survived.

What followed that game-winning, reviving field goal was a whirlwind of euphoria, a powerful force drawing its strength from the incredible reversal of the impossible.

Two-hundred-pound 16-year-olds kissed each other, solemnly embracing. Coaches wailed and jumped in the air. The kicker fell prostrate on the field, then ran to hug the goal post. A journalist wiped tears on his sleeve. After a gloomy day, and a second half filled with showers, the sun came out.

Homestead High School came from behind _ and back from Hurricane Andrew's devastation _ to win its first football game of the season Friday on a 28-yard field goal with 10 seconds left.

Kicker Hugo Lara wasn't the only hero on the field Friday when Homestead, opening a storm-delayed season a month late, defeated Miami Beach 8-7.

"This was the best win ever in the history of the school," proclaimed head coach Dale Hardy.

"No one in the world has been through what you had to go through these last weeks. You all played your hearts out, you deserved the win," he told his team.

"This is a victory for the city of Homestead," captain Adam Brownstein declared.

Homestead's football team had fulfilled its coach's pregame conviction:

"That hurricane didn't stop you. I'll be darned if a football team can stop you."

Forty-two days ago, as chaos rained above and around him, and the ceiling of a South Dade shelter came crashing in, Lamont Green had a sinking feeling.

He had left his black-and-red football shirt in the room, from which he and his family had just fled.

"We begged him not to go back," recalled Emma, his mother. Yet with the decisiveness and passion he has displayed the past three years as a starting linebacker for Southridge High, Green rushed back to find the tackle-tattered shirt.

He found it _ floating on top of 3 feet of water. A life preserver.

Green, like his Homestead counterparts, grasped any priceless souvenir of pre-hurricane life, any vestige of reality. Teammate Frank Rios was relieved to find his 1991 state championship ring safe amid the rubble of the house where everything else was gone.

Three weeks after Hurricane Andrew ripped life upside down in South Dade, school resumed.

This past Wednesday, all three south Dade County public high schools executed stunning victories, driven by frustration, determination and perhaps fate.

On Wednesday, Southridge defeated Christopher Columbus 35-14 in its delayed season opener. On Thursday, South Dade upset Coral Gables 3-0, despite carrying a roster of 20. And Friday was the scene of the Homestead miracle.

The scores were secondary. Football was back.

In the deluge of debris and dreams, the sport now has become an anchor in reality.

For three stolen hours, the Southridge and Homestead football teams entertained their schools and their communities last week, allowing the throbbing spirit of the bands, fans, parents and cheerleaders to flow once again.

"I really thought we had lost our spirit," said Marcia Brownstein, mother of Homestead's center. "But this win made up for everything."

Not even a win, but just the start of the season _ now shortened from 10 to seven games _ was unthinkable for at least 10 days after the storm. Both Homestead and Southridge suffered major roof and interior damage, and more than 2,000 students were absent when the schools finally reopened.

Equally challenging was reviving two of the state's top football programs: Homestead (8-2 last year) was ranked fifth in the state, while Southridge (11-2-1) just last week was ranked No.

2 in the National Preps poll, second in the state poll and fourth in the USA Today Top 25.

"I told my kids playing football was not a top priority in life," said Hardy in a team meeting five days after the hurricane. "But if we're going to play, I told them you've got to make the commitment."

In the past three weeks, Homestead and Southridge players fastened themselves to their commitment.

"This is the best thing that could have happened to the school," said Southridge English teacher Rochelle Lewis, watching the game Wednesday with her colleagues. "It shows that we're getting back to normal."

Everybody has a story to tell, even if they would much rather have talk about the touchdown or the tackle they just witnessed.

"It was the worst thing I have ever gone through," said Green, 16, after discussing his team's win. "Probably even worse than when my dad died."

But as was the case two years ago, football has kept him afloat.

His apartment condemned, the junior takes his mother to kidney dialysis three times a week. Five days a week, he travels more than 40 miles from temporary housing to attend Southridge and play for coach Don Soldinger. So do most of the team, starters or bench-warmers. Southridge lost only seven players of the 72 varsity members; Homestead lost 20.

"People are pretty resilient here, hard-working," said Soldinger. "The community is all blue collar _ tri-ethnic (Hispanic, black and white) _ this is what the country's all about."

Ever since Soldinger went on that first reconnaissance mission through the rubble to contact players _ "I freaked out because I couldn't find anything, all landmarks were gone. I felt empty." _ he has been helping kids bounce back.

But not by babying the team. During practice, at least, the coach, clad in his characteristic "Gilligan hat," runs a tight ship, barking orders, cursing delinquent players.

"I'm all business on the field. After practice, I'm there," Soldinger says.

Farther south, in even worse-off, dilapidated Homestead, a variation of Soldinger's strict policy applies. "In practice, you don't want to spend too much time talking about the storm," said Hardy, "because in football, the bottom line is you have to block and tackle."

But Hardy's hurricane experience showed him that in life, the bottom line sometimes is survival. Unlike Soldinger, Hardy's town house was not spared.

"You got to live through this thing to understand. You got to be like my wife and me. No electricity, no phone, no water, camping out on the kitchen floor _ just everything working against you that you could possibly think."

But forget the bad luck, Hardy told his team (as he did himself)."I told the kids if you feel sorry for yourself, then the problem's still going to exist."

Still, senior linebacker James Burgess, considered one of the state's top college prospects, can't help but ask, "Why my senior year?"

It's a question he feels entitled to voice, after spending five death-defying hours running from room to room with 12 relatives in his three-bedroom house, praying the swaying building would hold.

"The hurricane has brought the team closer together. We're more motivated than ever, now," Burgess said.

After practices, Burgess and Brownstein led informal discussions, ranging on storm-survival stories to winning the district. It's hard not to listen to the 190-pound Brownstein.

He lost his entire house. "I came back the next day, and it was all wiped out. I knew it was my house because my car was slammed into its side wall." His reaction was natural.

"Yes, to tell you the truth, I did cry."

And on Friday, for the first time since the hurricane, Brownstein cried again.

He, along with his offensive line neighbor, left tackle Warren Tettey, are living with two assistant coaches in Broward County, getting up at 5 a.m. every day to travel the 90 minutes to school.

"One thing we are doing as coaches _ we are becoming more compassionate with the kids, just listening to them," said Hardy.

Before the hurricane, the Homestead Broncos had opened training camp with 65 varsity players and 55 junior varsity. After eight days of preseason practices, athletic director Robert Piero said he thought Homestead was going to have its finest athletic year to date _ in football and in every other sport.

Andrew not only mangled that prediction, but it also shed a whole new perspective on competition.

"The three most important things are shelter, food and clothing," said Piero. "Way more important than winning a football game. Even now."

Now, with more than 500 students gone because of Homestead Air Force Base reassignments, and others unreachable, Hardy finds himself with one program of 65 kids. Six key starters moved to other states, leaving no depth on the offensive or defensive lines.

"Going into this game, I wasn't sure we were going to win," Hardy said. "I mean, heck, we haven't even had a real practice field."

The Broncos have spent three weeks practicing on their storm-battered field with twisted goal posts, sharing half of it with National Guard tanks and tents.

As a gesture of good will, Miami Beach hosted three busloads of Homestead students _ representatives of extracurricular groups _ for the entire day before the game. Fans on both sides of Miami Beach's Memorial Stadium were wearing "Hi-Tides Unite for Homestead" T-shirts, printed especially for the day.

The Homestead band played in its formations, the 10 cheerleaders smiling as if they all had air conditioning, water and a bedroom to come back to. As at the Southridge game, the crowd chanted, danced and swayed, hand-in-hand, to the alma mater.

"Now it's all anticlimactic," said Dr. Fred Rodgers, father figure/principal of Southridge, a day after his school's exhilarating win.

"A lot of people kept saying, "Look at Southridge, wow, they could be good _ but they lost some kids, but with the hurricane but with this and that . . .' " said Southridge assistant coach Mike Shapiro. "We took a step getting rid of the buts today."

Last week, coaches, players, fans and principals vented their frustrations and fears on the field. They cheered. They blocked and tackled. They won.

"It made my day, just to see how far they had come," said Southridge's Rodgers. "When they scored that first touchdown, I went crazy. I replayed it over and over again in my mind. Aw, heck _ we're back now. We're back as a family. That meant a lot."

Said Homestead's Hardy: "Sure, I guess winning a state championship would probably top this as the best win ever. But when you add up all the factors here, certainly nothing will be as emotional as this one."

After the storm

August 20

Hurricane Andrew blows through South Dade.

August 24

Homestead coach Dale Hardy borrows a car from his mother (his jeep is nearly totaled) to search the area for his players. He finds just two players _ one was up on his roof, one was in his front yard with a rake.

August 29: First meeting. Twenty-three players show up. Half of whom are junior varsity. Hardy tells them to spread the word that Homestead will have a team if enough players show.

Sept. 3: Second meeting. Five more players show.

Sept. 5: National Guard arrives at Homestead High, starts repairing the roof, draining water from hallways, removing debris from playing fields.

Sept. 10: First practice. Forty players attend.

Sept.11: Heavy rains flood school again.

Sept. 12: Seventy-plus Navy Seabees fix roof, repair electrical system.

Sept. 13: Electricity on.

Sept. 14: First day of school.

Sept. 30: First game in Dade County. Southridge vs. Christopher Columbus.