He was benched for two years as the lawsuit crept through the legal system. “I was by far the best halfback on the team,” Berger says, now 23 but still angry. “There’s no way you can’t play me. In practice, they’d put me on the B squad and I’d tear up the A squad.” He says he stayed on the team for two years but was allowed on the field only once, returning a kickoff 50 yards.
“Everybody knew I got hazed in the locker room,” he says. “I said, ‘You want to lock me in a locker and laugh for an hour, fine. But I’m not down with urine, dude.’ ”
At the beginning of his junior year, Berger says, he showed up to start the season. The coach told Berger he needed a physical. Berger produced the required slip of paper. He says the coach started yelling. “He’s like, ‘No! No! No!!! Effin’ this, effin’ that—you’re not coming on my team, you’re done, you’re done, you’re done!’ And I started screaming at him.”
That’s when Berger says Coach Mac lunged at him—his hand reaching the boy’s throat.
“The guy grabbed me in front of the whole team,” Berger says. “This is hard to say—I know he was a good coach and a lot of kids liked him. But it really happened.”
McElroy’s lawyer vehemently denies almost every aspect of Berger’s story. “McElroy had nothing to do with this kid,” Joe Rosenthal says. “What I know about the Berger incident is it did not involve hazing. It involved a fight among teenage boys. He never brought this incident to McElroy’s attention; he must have brought it to the JV coach’s attention. And McElroy never prevented him from playing on the varsity team. Any player that wants to be on the football team can be on the team. There’s a no-cut policy. You may not start, but you’ll be on the team.”
Berger says his friends persuaded him to stay off the team. He wrestled instead. But he wonders whether what happened at camp could have been prevented if he hadn’t settled his lawsuit.
“Of course this thing escalated to sodomy,” Berger says. “This guy’s still the head coach.”
It’s a fact of life in Bellmore and Merrick that the farther south you go, the more money you’ll find. Mepham’s student body is pulled from the northern part of the community, where there are $50,000-a-year jobs and the school parking lot is dominated by Chevys and Fords. A few miles away—south of Sunrise Highway, down by the blue water of East Bay—BMWs and Lexuses fill the lot at the rival high school, John F. Kennedy. This was Amy Fisher’s high school—the rich school. Says one Mepham parent, “We’re always in competition with the upper class.”
The kids on Kennedy’s football team know the Mepham team, and they’re a little afraid of some of them. One afternoon after practice, they air their theories, the chief one being that the lineman must have been traumatized as a kid. “That kid was sick!” says a player named Rob. Does he know this for sure? Of course not. But it’s not the only time I hear neighbors, even parents, float this notion. (Almost as prevalent is the idea, not confirmed by police, that the lineman’s father committed suicide.)
“I knew all those kids,” says another boy, a JV player. “I went to summer school with them.” The lineman, he says, “was always starting fights. You could just see he had so much anger in him. He’d just beat up on people—he’d be walking by and boom! Into the locker! I think he’s a dirtbag. Decent football player, though.”
“The morals, the attitudes, of a Mepham student, are different,” suggests another Kennedy player, Danny.
Adds Jesse: “Mepham kids say, ‘You’re from Kennedy,’ and punch us. They’re the bully school, the physical school. Even in middle school, we knew which kids were going to Mepham and which to Kennedy.”
“We’re more Jewish!” another kid yells, laughing.
“We have more wealthy backgrounds,” says Danny.
“They’re big football players who look and act like football players,” says Jesse. “Big and aggressive.”
The lineman “was yelled at a lot,” remembers another boy. “He was always in trouble at school, but not in football. Sports in Mepham is very big.”
What’s Kennedy’s record?
“We’ve been 0 and 8 since 1999!” says James.
On Bellmore Avenue, the main drag in town, a mile or so east of Mepham, Doc’s Pub serves as an unofficial class-reunion space. It’s the kind of bar where people still smoke and no one cares. On a warm night in October, Mary Williams and her boyfriend, Andy Corcoran, both Mepham class of 1980, sit having a drink. Mary is a third-generation “Bellmoron.” Her boy, Kyle, played varsity. He went to camp but didn’t stay in the fated cabin. “He knows the main kid,” she says. “He’s been in trouble before, that kid. He’s well known as a bully. But my son says nobody knew he would cross the line.”
Andy’s son plays lacrosse. This is a sore point for Mary. “Your son—woo hoo! He’s having fun. My son’s not. He doesn’t have a senior season to put on his college application.”
“This guy comes to my job,” says Andy. “He says, ‘Oh, I’m in Mepham now, maybe I should shove a pinecone up my ass!’ I said, ‘That’s not funny.’ These guys on the team are gonna be harassed the rest of their fuckin’ lives.”
“My son knows one of the boys who was attacked,” Mary says sadly. “He tried seriously to treat him as a regular kid, like nothing ever happened. And I know the family of one of the attackers. They’re a beautiful family. My son thinks it’s just a bad thing that went too far, too fast.”
Andy mentions what some people are saying—that what happened at camp was part of a pattern of hazing at Mepham. Mary explodes. “Who? Wesley? Wesley was a nasty rat bastard! That was hazing! This was a sexual attack!”
“Yeah,” says Andy, “but—”