September 16, 2011
By TODD SLISS
While most people were asking questions on Sept. 11, 2001, Peter Jacobson was getting an answer.
With approval from his boss, Jacobson, then a full-timer in the financial industry in Manhattan and volunteer EMS, left work to go to Central Park to help in the relief effort after the Twin Towers were hit by hijacked airplanes. He spent the day, and far into the night, going in and out of the white dust-covered area that would later be known as Ground Zero, shuttling injured people to the hospital.
Jacobson?s efforts made him realize that helping others as a first responder was much more rewarding than his day job.
Serendipitously as a junior at Cornell, the 1996 Edgemont graduate had taken the entrance exam for the FDNY in case he wasn?t satisfied with his career path in finance. A month after Sept. 11, he got the call as 343 spots in the fire department had opened up due to the terrorist attack that killed nearly 3,000 people, many of them firefighters.
?The number 1 thing that still strikes me about being a firefighter vs. banking, is I?d work long hours at the bank when I had to and I?d go home at 9 or 10 and I?d be tired and I didn?t feel like I accomplished anything that day,? Jacobson said. ?Maybe I made more money for people who probably had too much money to begin with, but I just wasn?t happy with myself. Now I?ll work a 24-hour shift at the firehouse and I?ll go home exhausted, but I?ll be satisfied. Ten years later I feel good knowing I did real work, something significant. Hopefully making a difference for people, sometimes not, but always trying.?
Jacobson walked away from one lifestyle and salary opportunity for one that was completely different.
?When I got hired by the fire department I jumped on that and haven?t had any second thoughts,? Jacobson said. ?The side benefit of becoming a firefighter was having the time to coach wrestling, which is something I wanted to do and being more involved in the sport.
?I?m really lucky to be a firefighter in New York City and to be able to coach wrestling at Edgemont. For me, that?s perfect. If anything, I think Sept. 11 made me more enthusiastic about joining the fire department.?
Jacobson?s old office was on 23d and Park in the city. He was on the subway when the first plane hit, at the office when the second hit. ?That?s when things became more obvious,? Jacobson said.
Jacobson?s ambulance might have been near the World Trade Center when the second tower fell, but on his first run toward the danger zone he passed a bicyclist who had been hit by a car. The crew treated the bicyclist and took him to the hospital. That extra half hour may just have saved Jacobson?s life.
?I ended up getting near World Trade Center about 15 minutes after the second tower collapsed, which is crazy, because if there wasn?t that half hour window we would have been down there before the second tower collapsed,? Jacobson said. ?I don?t even want to think about that.?
Jacobson was not familiar with the area and some problems they ran into were narrow streets that don?t run at right angles. A cloud enveloped the whole area and the makeshift command center had been destroyed.
?The first 12-15 hours nobody knew who was in charge and there was nobody telling anybody what to do,? Jacobson said. ?We were just picking people up randomly and shuttling them to hospitals and going back. There were papers knee high in the street and dust covering everything. Sometimes you saw a flicker of flame, but it was like really dense fog the entire day. You drive out and it?s all sunny and you drive back into the fog.?
There was no magic to what he did that day. It was just Pete being Pete.
?I?m so happy that I had the opportunity and the ability to help,? Jacobson said. ?I would have been sitting at home like other people were, watching people suffer and wishing I could do something.?
The next month Jacobson got the call from the fire department to enter the academy as an EMS. The decision was easy and he left what likely would have been a profitable life for himself and his clients. In 2003 he got another call, this time to enter the fire academy and since that time has been a full-time firefighter in the city at 76th Engine on 100th and Amsterdam.
?I don?t like to be sitting in front of a computer all day,? Jacobson said. ?I like to be a firefighter because I?m doing stuff. I like to be a wrestling coach for the same reason.?
On the mat
There was probably one ?selfish? aspect to Jacobson?s career switch. He knew firefighters often work long shifts and then have long periods of time off. With a more flexible schedule he was able to return to his alma mater to coach wrestling, first as a volunteer and then in 2003-04 as part-time assistant to his former varsity coach, George DiChiara, along with former classmate Ety Ryback. The following year Jacobson was the full-time assistant.
DiChiara and Jacobson developed Edgemont from a tiny team into a Section 1 and New York State small schools powerhouse. With DiChiara retiring after last season, Jacobson, who has been running the team?s offseason training with a bunch of volunteer assistants, is a frontrunner for the head coaching position.
Last winter, DiChiara reflected on the things that made his long career as wrestling coach satisfying. Among them was not only having Jacobson coach with him, but knowing that Jacobson had the character to give up a career in the private sector to serve others.
Jacobson wrestled at Edgemont for six years from seventh through 12th grade. In seventh and eighth grade Jacobson was on modified under coach Rob Breitenbach before moving up to varsity under DiChiara. As a senior, team captain Jacobson won his division at 126 pounds and was named Most Outstanding Wrestler of the tournament. In sectionals against both small and large schools he got upset in the quarterfinals, ending his high school career. ?By that time I had developed such a love for the sport,? he said. (He also played football and baseball in high school.)
Jacobson wrestled for one season at Division I Cornell and it wasn?t until earlier this month that the 33-year-old got back on the competitive mat for the first time. Leading up to the 10th anniversary of Sept. 11, the biennial World Police & Fire Games international competition came to New York City for the first time and was based at the Jacob Javits Center from Aug. 26-Sept. 5.
?Once I was out of college and in the working world I realized how much I missed wrestling. I wanted to coach and help out,? Jacobson said, not yet realizing that he would yearn to return to the mat as a competitor, too.
Throughout his coaching career Jacobson has taken a hands-on approach. Between Edgemont practices and working at various clubs throughout the year, he has been no stranger to the mat. However, in order to prepare for the Games, he needed to get hardcore with his own training, especially since he would be going from the folkstyle of high school and college wrestling to the freestyle used throughout the rest of the world. The summer months were a challenge for Jacobson who dropped from 170 pounds to 152 pounds, all the while learning a new style.
?Particularly the way I wrestle, folkstyle, does not lend itself well to freestyle,? Jacobson said. ?I do a lot of things in folkstyle that work well but put you in potentially dangerous situations as far as freestyle goes. It was very hard to break habits that were ingrained for so long.?
Jacobson enlisted help from many of his colleagues, including Edgemont volunteer assistants Manny Alayon and Mike Mitchell, and local club owners John Degl and Max Askren. ?They deserve a lot of credit,? Jacobson said. He also noted the support of his father, Jay Jacobson, his girlfriend, Katie Abole, and his fellow firefighters.
?Now having coached for 10 years and getting back into competition I was able to train a lot more intelligently than I ever would have,? Jacobson said. ?I know a lot more about what I should be doing as an athlete because I?ve been learning what athletes should be doing in order to teach them. I think one of the most helpful things was to get a lot of different advice and perspectives from a lot of different people instead of taking one person?s coaching alone.?
Hurricane Irene wreaked havoc on the schedule for the Games and wrestling was pushed off several days. Some wrestlers who hadn?t planned on staying had to go home and others were unable to make weight. The 152-pound class (69 kilos) went from eight wrestlers to four. Jacobson had three matches, went 1-2 and took the bronze medal. He lost to the silver and gold medalists by one and two points, respectively.
?I wanted to take a medal, but I was wrestling to compete,? Jacobson said. ?I wanted to wrestle and whatever happened, happened. On the other hand it was a little frustrating to know I was right there with the guys who beat me by a point or two.?
In 2013, the Games will be held in Belfast in Northern Ireland. Jacobson plans to be there.
?The biggest thing for me looking back on the Games is it made me realize how much I love wrestling,? Jacobson said. ?I?d love to keep competing. I think it?s going to make me a better coach also. I tell our kids stuff that I know because I was there, but I was there 15 years ago. Now I?ve been there more recently with cutting the weight and preparing mentally and training the way I know I need to train and taking care of injuries the way I need to take care of them.
?I think I?ve always been very good technically, but I?m significantly better. I try to learn every summer at camps and picking other coaches? brains, but I definitely learned a ton just by training. I can?t wait to get?back in our room and work with our guys.?
From THE SCARSDALE INQUIRER