BRONX - It’s a Cinderella story set in the Bronx as one local high school team beat the odds.
On Saturday, the Cardinal Hayes Cardinals beat the St. Francis Red Raiders of Buffalo, 40-22 to capture the New York State Catholic High School championship game.
"It's has been a movie, really," said Cardinals junior quarterback Rich Belin. "I was like, ‘This isn't real. This isn't real. We didn't just do this. We didn't just do this.’ And it was just an unbelievable moment"
One moment Rich got to share with his twin brother and teammate, Blake.
"Our team really made history. The first New York City team to win states," said Blake Belin, a junior defensive lineman for the Cardinals. "That was a great accomplishment for us. You know, I think we made history about five times this year. So this team's been great throughout this whole year—bouncing back from what happened last year."
The championship caps off an incredible turnaround, given the Cardinals finished in last place last season with an 8-2—this year the program finished 12-2.
"They’re are a group of young men that believe in what we’re doing and that’s huge," said Cardinal Hayes head football coach C.J. O’Neil, who has been at the helm for 22 years. "Their sense of belief and perseverance in the process is really something I don't think you see a lot in society today. I'm in awe of the young men who just set a goal for themselves and kept building on it practice in our in every day and just kept working to a goal."
A long journey and an unbelievable one filled with adversity along the way—the Cardinals couldn’t host opposing teams at their home field located in a public park near Yankee Stadium at all this season because it was unplayable.
"We had a lot of difficulties here in terms of getting to our traditional home field was was in pretty bad situation this year and we to find different places to play our home games," says O’Neil. "Columbia University was a tremendous home for us and let us use that facility on a number of occasions—that was probably number one."
As for other hurdles.
"The football office also lit on fire in the middle of the season, which was interesting to say the least. So we were having meetings in the hallway—that was home base for a little while." says O’Neil who sits an office that still smells of smoke. "Great job by the school getting us back up and running again. Everything's getting replaced one by one, slowly but surely. And we're back at it for next year."
When daylight savings time ended in early November, the team started hiking almost a mile on foot in the middle of practice to Mott Haven Community College’s football field which has lights.
"So this is the Duff," said Richas he showed FOX5 NY the practice field adjacent to the school. "It was donated to us by John Duff to the school in 2006. It's not regulation width-wise wise and we have about 70-yards running length. Honestly, it helps us on the offensive side of the ball because we get to play with a more condensed field—which means when we get on a real field—we got more space. And so when daylight saving came, we had to practice on here for an hour and then we'd go take a walk to Mott Haven—they have lights over there—so we’d be able to practice for a full three hours."
Blake and Rich’s father, Henry A. Belin llI, is a senior pastor at the First A.M.E. Church: Bethel says despite all the challenges the team faced—the players remained focused.
"They did not let any level of adversity affect them," says Henry. "They kept their mind fixed. They made sure they came and did their work at school. They did the practices and they focused on what they had to do. They had a goal in mind and they kept to it."
"We're really big on controlling what you can control," adds his son Rich. "And so with everything— when adversity strikes, you've just got to keep on pushing forward. You can't dwell on the past. You can't let anything bring you down. You just got to keep on going."
Rich who as the team’s QB picked up touchdowns through the air and on the ground to lead his team to the ‘Chip was named the league‘s best offensive player and is up for the prestigious Gatorade National Player of the Year award.
Meanwhile, the eldest Belin son, Henry Belin IV also suited up under center for the Cards and is now a redshirt freshman at Duke University.
"To have my brother fly in from Durham to come and watch me play," says Rich. "My dad, my mom on, my family out there on the sideline in the stands—just to have everyone there supporting me and my team—it just was an unbelievable feeling."