Devante Wheeler celebrated his 18th birthday last week, but he said he really didn’t get any gifts.
Last Tuesday night, the Polyp Prep grad and Stony Brook-bound cornerback got the best present he could ask for, a neatly wrapped interception he returned to the 1-yard line late in the fourth quarter, keying New York City’s 15-10 win against Long Island in the 15th annual Outback Steakhouse Empire Challenge in front of 8,224 at Hofstra’s Shuart Stadium.
“I’ve been here for the past five years on the sideline, waiting for my chance,” said Wheeler, who honored his father, Chris Legree, on his birthday. “I was really happy I was able to make a big play and the ball came my way.”
On 2nd and 9 from the Long Island 20, Syracuse-bound quarterback John Kinder couldn’t field a high snap and finally recovered the ball in the end zone. Under pressure by Clinton’s Kwaku Duah, Kinder desperately released the ball, right into Wheeler’s hands.
“[Defensive coordinator Jim Munson] told me that I need you to make a big play out there,” Duah said. “I was a little nervous, but I said, ‘Coach I got you.’ As soon as I saw the quarterback fumble the ball, I just went for that ball. I knew if I go, I’d make a play.”
Wagner quarterback Jordan Rodriguez ran in both New York City touchdowns. His second score, a 1-yard burst up the middle out of the shotgun with 1:41 left in the fourth quarter, put NYC up for good.
“I told [offensive coordinator] Vinny Laino that under the center would be a little tougher because of the wet [turf] — give me a running start and I promise you that I’ll make it in,” the 6-foot-1, 225-pound quarterback said. “I just needed those extra two steps that I could run with my big body at somebody. I’m a big man, so I’m not going to sit here and juke 10 times. I’m going to go straight at the guy and punish him.”
Flushing defensive tackle Jason Bromley and Holy Cross’ Chris Brathwaite punished the Long Island City offensive line, constantly putting pressure on the squad’s quarterbacks. Bromley earned MVP honors, the unsigned senior racking up a game-high seven tackles, including three for losses. He also had two sacks for 15 yards and constantly put pressure on the Long Island quarterbacks.
“Bromley was a beast today,” said former NFL quarterback Boomer Esiason, whose foundation for cystic fibrosis receives all proceeds from the game. “The guy was all over the place. Long Island could not control him. He was just a beast and he made it a long night for Long Island quarterbacks.”
The Virginia-bound Brathwaite had four tackles, including one-and-a half for losses. It was a dominant performance from a unit without All-American Dominique Easley and Rhode Island-bound Jason Timmins. Long Island gained 91 of its 113 rushing yards in the first half.
“Brathwaite was on fire and Bromley, they were in the backfield every single play,” Wheeler said. “Those guys are unstoppable. Everyone said ‘Oh, you guys don’t have Easley,’ but those guys really picked up the slack.”
Trailing 7-6 late in the third quarter, Fort Hamilton’s Nick Fiorito kicked a 44-yard field goal to put New York City in front, 9-7. Jesse Signa from St. Anthony’s answered back with a 30-yarder with 1:13 left in the third to put Long Island in front, 10-9.
It appeared Long Island sealed a second straight victory when Stony Brook-bound JeVahn Cruz picked off Fort Hamilton quarterback Frank Laino’s underthrown pass to Cardinal Hayes’ wide receiver Jeremiah Kobena on first down from the Long Island 23-yard line with 3:38 left in the fourth quarter.
But Kinder gave it right back and New York City capitalized.
“It’s a special one, the first one as a head coach,” New York City head coach Pete Gambardella of Curtis said. “Those guys played for the whole game and made some plays. I’m very proud of them. We showed what New York City football is all about.”