By Steven Zaitz
Richard “Bull” Smith, who founded Smithtown over 350 years ago, never played quarterback. Nor could he run the pick and roll in basketball, turn a 6-4-3 double play in baseball or swim the 100-meter breaststroke.
However, his statue was smack in the middle of about 100 student-athletes, coaches and parents Friday, Sept. 18, as they gathered to protest the Section XI decision to suspend all high school sports due to the coronavirus until at least January 2021. They met right on the front lawn of Section XI headquarters on Main Street and Route 111 in Smithtown.
Groups representing Kings Park, East Islip, Northport, Commack, Ward Melville and Connetquot joined Smithtown residents, who began their protest at the school district’s administration earlier on New York Avenue, and held up signs imploring the decision makers to rethink this delay. Many of these devoted and impassioned protesters were at the same location, doing the same thing Tuesday, Sept. 15.
One of these protesters was Ray Zuppa, an attorney from Smithtown, who feels that high school athletic facilities are far less dangerous than other places that kids might go. He is also a strong believer that not having the chance to play sports is devastating to the youngsters’ development.
“I believe Section XI has let the kids down,” Zuppa said later during a phone interview. “I realize it is a serious virus, but the science supports that it’s difficult to catch outside and when wearing a mask.”
Zuppa’s son, Isaiah Zuppa, is the starting quarterback of the Smithtown West Bulls and was one of the highest-rated passers in Suffolk County in 2019. He was also in attendance at the protest.
“Isaiah is a shell of himself,” the father said. “It’s not just about the games, but all these kids are missing the camaraderie, the discipline, team dinners and the bonding — and you know what, the parents are missing it too. Sports is essential to a lot of families.”
Zuppa coached his son for many years in the Suffolk County Police Athletic League, and when the father was asked if he took solace in the plans to have football season in March, he was skeptical.
“I think this March thing is just a way to kick the can down the road,” he said. “I don’t think it’s really going to happen, and this is just a way for them to bide their time.”
The masked protesters were rewarded by the encouragement of honking car horns, and they created a party-like atmosphere as they tossed footballs, sang team fight songs and ran through tumbling routines at the foot of Smith’s statue. However, Tom Combs, executive director of Section XI, and the main target of the protesters’ ire, did not address the crowd or make an appearance from his nearby office.
“While this was a difficult decision, we feel it was the best move for the health and safety of everyone involved,” Combs said in a Sept. 11 statement on the Section XI website. “We still have a lot of hard work ahead in planning and executing on the three seasons across six months in 2021, but we look forward to the challenge and collaboration with our member schools and providing an impactful experience for our student-athletes and coaches.”
Despite Combs’ nonappearance, Zuppa still thinks these public showings are beneficial.
“They know we’re out here,” he said. “They know how we feel.”