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A supporter wears a wristband in memory of Victor Krivitski. (Photo: Jake Heller)

By: Jake Heller

The rugby season started in a sanctuary basement. 29 guys—some burly, some gawky, all dressed in rugby gear—stood in the basement of Colgate University’s chapel in Hamilton, New York.

The chapel stands at the top of one of the campus’ many rolling hills, a pristine white marble building at the heart of the small upstate town. At the bottom of the hill sits the rugby pitch.

The Still Reds had been scheduled to start practice that day, but coach Tim Burdick had no idea how many players were going to show up. Their friend and teammate, Victor Krivitski—Vic—had, one day earlier, died from cancer at his home in Cape May County, New Jersey, eight months after he was diagnosed. In the words of his father, Victor Michael Krivitski, Vic had “literally died in his mother’s arms.” He was 21 years old.

Yet on the evening of August 23, 29 young men showed up at the chapel with their practice gear on. Each player lit a candle. Then, candles in hand, the team strode out into the summer night.

Coach Burdick stayed behind a moment to talk to the chaplains and the rabbi who had just told the students that “there is no right way to grieve and there is no wrong way to grieve.” And as Burdick stepped out of the chapel, over the hill’s peak, and looked down at his team gathered on the rugby pitch, he learned how his players were going to deal with the loss of their friend and teammate.

“Sure enough, they had all spelled out V-I-C with the candles,” Burdick said. “They were burning right there on the hillside.”

He sat his team down beside the burning candles, and they all shared their Vic stories—the bear hugs that lifted them as high as Vic’s 6-foot-4 frame would allow; the time Vic welcomed them onto the team when they were still shy freshmen; the way Vic preferred rappelling out of his fourth-floor dorm window and down the side of the building to taking the stairs.

Then hooker Andrew Schlenger—the “fat, jolly guy,” according to his coach—spoke up.

“Seems to me Vic has done his part,” Schlenger told his teammates. “He went and died. Now all we have to do is win every game.”

On Sunday, November 13, the Still Reds were one win away from a perfect 13-0 season. They had beaten archrival Cornell, 23-15, in their first game, to return the Claret Mug (awarded annually to the winner of the Colgate-Cornell match) to Colgate for the first time in eight years. They had broken the all-time club records for tries, points and margin of victory the next week, when they humiliated Siena College, 81-3, on Victor Krivitski Family Fun Day, a day dedicated to their departed teammate. And they had made the conference playoffs for the first time in five years.

“This is the best they have ever done because they all love Vic,” Vic’s father said.

“The whole memory of Victor has taken on a life of its own,” said Vic’s mother, Roxane.

They were both talking over the phone: him from their home in New Jersey, where Victor Sr. had just come off a shift at his small bike shop; her from the car, one hour into her six hour drive back home. She had just watched Colgate beat William Paterson University, 28-17, to advance to the semifinals of the National Qualifying Tournament. The women’s rugby team, Colgate’s president and Colgate’s dean of students were also in attendance—there to meet her, cheer on the team, and remember Vic.

“This year has all been for Vic,” he said.

~~

Colgate students, faculty, and alumni all hold the number 13 in reverence. In 1817, the liberal arts college was founded by 13 men who, legend has it, only had “13 dollars, 13 prayers, and 13 articles” between them. The school’s zip code is also 13346: the first 13 stands alone, and the 3, 4, and 6 add up to 13. On November 13, after having scored 13 tries in their victory over Siena College, Colgate had an opportunity to go 13-0.

If the Still Reds won their lucky 13th game, they would qualify for the National Championships. On a neutral ground in Poughkeepsie, New York, all that stood in their way was Fairfield University (7-2), who was still reeling from their semi-final come-from-behind upset of host Vassar College.

Donning warm-up shirts and wristbands that read ‘TRY 4 VIC’—a play on both Vic’s number and the rugby equivalent of a football touchdown, the try—and VK on their shorts, the Still Reds assembled on the sideline before their championship game. Arms around each other, in a circle, they stood over a ring of jerseys carefully placed around one shirt in the middle: the jersey that bore the number four on its back, the one that Vic had worn.

There, one win away from a perfect season, they announced the starting line-up, and the players picked up and put on their jerseys as their names were called.

Then coach Burdick said: “Hug a teammate.”

The Still Reds hugged one another as if they had not seen each other in months. They gripped each other with the kind of intensity usually reserved for doting mothers, or separated lovers. Then each of the starting 22 wrapped black electrical tape around his left arm, close to his heart.

Finally, the team headed to the try zone that they would be defending in the first half. They brought an urn with them. And, with Roxane Krivitski’s consent, the team buried some of Victor Krivitski’s ashes in the try zone.

“He should have been on the field with us,” explained co-captain Marc Foto. So for their championship game, Foto said, he would be. “We were a man up.”

Once the game began, Colgate was quickly three points down. Fairfield had capitalized on the Still Reds’ careless turnovers, nervous penalties and porous back line, and had swiftly moved the ball deep into Colgate’s half. An easy penalty kick put the Red Ruggers up 3-0.

With only four minutes left in the first half, the scoreboard had not changed. Colgate was still sloppy, and Fairfield was uninspired.

Then Colgate’s nerves disappeared. They took control. The backs ran hard into tackles, the forwards sealed rucks with zeal. And in those last four minutes, Colgate scored 12 points to take a 12-3 lead into halftime.

The second half was just as one-sided as the last four minutes of the first. Fairfield broke a few big runs for scores, but Colgate kept pounding. The Still Reds grew stronger as the game went on, and the Red Ruggers tired. When the final whistle blew, Colgate had won 45-20. They were going to Nationals.

Their bench poured out onto the field, and the hugging started anew. They threw their arms around one another, and formed a circle at center field.

“Three cheers for the Sir!” the team’s other co-captain, Jack Henley, shouted, to thank the referee.

“Hip hip hooray! Hip hip hooray! Hip hip hooray!” the team responded in unison.

“Three cheers for Fairfield!” Henley shouted a bit louder.

“Hip hip hooray! Hip hip hooray! Hip hip hooray!” the team shouted back.

Then Henley stepped into the center of the circle. And, almost possessed, he screamed:

“Three cheers for Vic!”

“HIP HIP HOORAY! HIP HIP HOORAY! HIP HIP HOORAY!” the team screamed back.

The sound gripped the open mountain air. Nothing else existed to these young men, or to those watching, outside of that moment. Vic was there, if only because everybody standing in maroon and white on that field, on a farm in Poughkeepsie, N.Y., was thinking about him. If only for that moment, he lived again.

“We all really rallied behind him,” Henley said later of Vic. “[Vic’s memory] was the rallying cry that echoed throughout the season.”

“We were supposed to win,” said Foto.

Captains Jack Henley (left) and Marc Foto (right) accept the championship trophy. (Photo: Jake Heller)

~~

Coach Tim Burdick sat in a living room in Long Island, two weeks before the start of the rugby season. It was Burdick’s brother’s living room, where Vic and Roxane were crashing for the night. Vic had texted Burdick three days earlier to ask his coach if he “still had a couch he could crash on.”

Vic and his Mom were traveling to a nearby clinic to inquire about experimental treatments. Doctors at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York City had told Vic two months earlier that they could no longer cure him.

“That’s ridiculous,” Roxane remembers Vic saying when they heard the news. “I’m going to find a way to make this work. I’m going to find a way to be cured.”

“He never really gave up,” she said.

Burdick passed Vic a photo of the rugby team. Vic pointed to the photo. “He knew every name,” Burdick said. “There’s Alex, there’s Jack…”

The next day, Vic and Roxane learned that Vic was not healthy enough to handle the experimental treatment they had been seeking.

The day after that, at the Atlantic Regional Medical Center in Pomona, New Jersey, they learned that Vic’s cancer had spread from his lungs, his brain, and his left chest—around his heart, where it had started—to his liver, his left kidney and his spleen.

“That was the day we knew, no more,” Roxane said.

“I don’t know if he cried, but I did.”

They stopped searching for more treatments. They went home.

Vic got thinner and thinner.

For the next five days, Roxane watched her only child, she said, “waste away and die before my very eyes.” The prognosis had been given on a Wednesday. Vic died the following Monday.

“He was our magnum opus,” his father bleated out through tears, months later. “He did an awful lot of living in his 21 years.”

Vic was a starter on the rugby team, an avid outdoorsman, a loving friend, and a loyal son. And he was the inspiration for a perfect season, an improbable run by a rugby team that had never won more than four games in a row.

“[Vic] was ridiculously uplifting, impossibly optimistic,” said co-captain Henley.

“His whole purpose in life was to make you smile, to make you happy,” his father agreed.

Burdick took the photo back, and asked Vic one last question: “Is there anything you want me to pass on to the boys?”

Vic’s eyes got really wide.

“Just love ‘em,” Vic said.

By: Jake Heller

When Wayétu Moore fled war-torn Liberia as a five-year-old and arrived at an elementary school in New York City, she was greeted with a surprising question:

“Did you go to school on an elephant?” one of her new classmates asked her.

“Something I experienced as a young foreigner here was the lack of knowledge about other cultures,” the now 26-year-old Moore said from her apartment in Prospect Heights.

So in January 2011, Moore launched a children’s book publishing company called One Moore Book, which strives to share the stories of foreign people and the customs of foreign countries with American children. Its books will “serve as a key to unknown people and places for all kids who do not have access to cultures outside of their own.”

“I hope that children can pick up these books… and understand that the world is just so much bigger than what we know and what we have been taught,” said Moore.

Thus far, One Moore Book has sold more than 3,000 books across the country, and is present in schools from Houston, Texas to New York City.

Chloe Taylor, a kindergarten teacher at P.S. 116 in Gramercy, thought that her students would do well to learn from Moore’s books. Last November, in a colorful classroom draped with pastel drawings and splotchy paintings, she introduced her class to Moore’s first book, “J is for Jollof Rice.”

The book tells the tale of a young Liberian girl who scours her nation’s countryside, her city’s markets, and her parents’ kitchen for food to make for dinner—all while learning the alphabet. Jollof rice is a mix of rice, tomato sauce, vegetables, meats and spices, and is one of Liberia’s signature dishes.

The students sat squarely in front of 25-year-old Taylor, on a colorful checkerboard carpet. It was near the end of the day, but they all still had boundless energy. They squirmed in their spots, imaginarily affixed to the ground, and shot their hands into the air whenever Taylor probed them with questions.

“How many of you have eaten rice before?” she asked.

Almost all of the children’s hands shot up.

“I’ve eaten brown rice,” said one student.

“Rice with beans,” said another.

“Sticky rice!” shouted someone from the back.

“I really liked “J is for Jollof Rice” because there are a lot of similarities between what the girl in Liberia did and what children do in New York,” Taylor said.

The book’s main character even transforms the apples she buys in a Monrovian market (Monrovia is the capital of Liberia) into the classic American food: apple pie.

“How many of you have eaten apple pie?” Taylor asked.

“Me! Me! Me!” the classroom erupted.

Indeed, in Moore’s Liberia, J may be for jollof rice, but P is still for pie. And parallels.

“I want children in America to learn that Liberian children are not that far removed from them,” Moore said.

Parents of Taylor’s students agree.

“I think it’s great when the kids learn about any other culture and country,” said Sarah Browne, Julian’s mother. “I think it expands their knowledge base and expands their view of the world.”

Shanika Bailey, whose daughter Neeasia is the only black student in Taylor’s class, concurred. She was particularly pleased that her child was learning about African culture.

“When blacks were enslaved they lost their language, their culture and their way of life,” Bailey said. “That’s why I feel it is very important for [Neeasia] to know as much about Africa as possible, so that she can get a sense of self.”

But Moore’s aim is not merely to educate Americans about other cultures. She has also targeted her books towards children living in countries with low literacy rates. By telling stories that reflect specific cultural narratives, she hopes that she will be able to increase literacy levels in countries like Liberia, where such levels remain low.

According to the State Department’s last calculations, done in 2008, 42 percent—nearly half—of Liberians are illiterate. And according to the United Nations, in Liberia’s rural areas, 74 percent of people do not know how to read. Only 19 percent of men and eight percent of women in Liberia have completed high school or university, the UN also reported.

“It would serve the children in Liberia so so much if they had access to literature written for them,” Moore said.

Since January, One Moore Book has published six children’s books, all about Liberia. Moore authored or co-authored all of the titles, while her siblings provided the illustrations. Next, Moore plans to write books about—and for—children in Afghanistan, Haiti, and Bolivia.

“I feel like children are so impressionable and so vulnerable to the world,” she said. “I hope that children can pick up these books and say: ‘I want to go to Liberia someday,’ or… ‘maybe I could have a friend who is Haitian.’”

As Taylor closed “J is for Jollof Rice” and carefully placed it back on the shelf, her students all began to clap and cheer.

“Who wants to go visit Liberia now?” she asked.

“I do!” the crowd in front of her answered.

It hasn’t been an easy road to the principal’s office for Roberto Padilla. So when the 33-year-old starts his first full school year as principal of West Prep Academy this fall, he’s looking to make an impact. Jake Heller reports.

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