For weeks, a rookie female tailback had been stealing the headlines from the Long Island City Bulldogs but on Saturday, October 11, a game-stopping brawl with Jamaica - and its potential effects on both teams’ seasons - grabbed the spotlight from what might have otherwise been Irene Gjoka’s very first appearance.
“I’m upset I didn’t get to play,” Gjoka said after the game. LIC head coach Steve Agresti had planned to protect the 105-pound senior from contact if she entered a game and Gjoka was confident that the Bulldogs’ comfortable lead on Saturday meant that Agresti was ready to put her in.
It never happened, though.
Long Island City was leading 22-6 when a third-quarter touchdown prompted a shoving match near the Jamaica end zone. Involved in the fracas were most of the on-field players, soon followed by a series of sprinting referees and police officers. As fans rushed to the edge of the packed bleachers to get a closer look, some members of the nearby Bulldog bench jumped in, too.
“I’ve never seen anything like this. … I’m embarrassed. I preach discipline to the kids,” said Agresti, who ran into the fray. “I just started grabbing kids, throwing them out of there.”
After the skirmish cleared, Agresti and his assistant coaches still had to restrain some players from returning to the field. Audible to everyone were the frustrations of junior linebacker Allen Jones, crying “This is - - -” as he was smothered by a pair of coaches, and of Agresti, decrying the uproar as “- - - stupid” and commanding his players to stay on the sideline. Jamaica players, too, were being restrained by an assistant coach.
“It’s one team, one family,” Bulldog defensive tackle Moez Abouelnaga explained after the game. “We all look out for each other.”
Meanwhile, after an initial ejection of six players - three from each team - head referee Bruce Croskey decided to suspend the game. Jamaica’s coaches and players began to pick up their equipment and, before long, piled onto a yellow school bus beyond the southwest gate of Long Island City High School Field.
PSAL officials could not be reached for comment regarding any pending player suspensions or team sanctions. “The matter is still under investigation,” PSAL football commissioner Alan Arbuse said on Tuesday, October 14. “I don’t expect a final decision before Thursday.”
As of Tuesday, October 14, the league web site listed Long Island City as the 28-6 victor. Should the result count, Jamaica would emerge from the contest with a 3-3 record, and Long Island City’s 5-1 record would bode well for an appearance in the city championship playoffs.
Yet recent PSAL history casts doubt on such an outcome. In 2006, when Tottenville and Canarsie brawled for seven minutes, both teams forfeited the game and their games the following week. While Tottenville had a 14-0 lead in the first half, the forfeit was announced immediately by Arbuse, who was in attendance. Such a ruling would change Long Island City’s record to 4-3, and Jamaica’s to 3-4.
Jamaica head coach Calvin Whitfield, however, believes the circumstances of the Saturday game were different. “It looked like a melee was taking place,” he said, “but when you look at the film, it’s not what it seemed. Jamaica High School didn’t do anything. Jamaica didn’t leave the bench.”
Either way, lost in the controversy was a season-making performance from Long Island City senior wide receiver Troy Walker, who elicited a great deal of fan noise on northwest Queens with two remarkable punt returns. The first culminated in a touchdown with seconds remaining in the first half; the second saw him leap over a Jamaica defender and find a 50-yard lane on the right side of the field. Walker’s ensuing touchdown was the last play of the game.
“Troy killed on the punt return,” Gjoka said.
And then there was the lost opportunity of Irene Gjoka, who spent the afternoon on the sideline, much as she had on October 5 against Thomas Jefferson. While Gjoka made that in-uniform debut before an array of television cameras, the rest of the team stumbled to a 24-8 defeat. A week later, Abouelnaga admitted that all the attention “got a little bit to us. We were all thinking, ‘What if I do this wrong…’”
Against Jamaica, though, one could sense Gjoka’s building excitement. She was often blocked from view by other players - perhaps because most can see over the five-footer’s head, or perhaps to limit the number of photographs being taken. However, as the game wore on, she kept herself active, at several points playfully pushing against junior wide receiver Isaiah Pearce. Before the second half, while the Bulldogs pumped themselves up in a maelstrom of hyper-masculine grunting, she stood out not for a moment, despite being only as tall as most of her teammates’ shoulders.
A Saturday, October 18 matchup at John Adams (3-3) - if that game is allowed to take place - will be Gjoka’s third chance to compete in a PSAL football game, just a few weeks removed from impressing the four-person panel that decided she could hold her own on the gridiron. If either team runs away with the lead, it appears that the chances of a Gjoka debut will be high. Three weeks remain in the regular season.
Jamaica, meanwhile, would host Beach Channel (5-1) at Jamaica High School Field on October 18. Moreover, after last weekend’s brawl, it is clear that Long Island City is not the only team hoping to shed the wrong kind of attention.
“We’re looking forward to playing next week,” Whitfield said.