2001: Team 334 carries on with heavy hearts

Orlando, Fla.

Team 334 was direly spinning its wheels during the second round of the Oldsmobile Scramble at Disney World’s Eagle Pines, and there was too much turf between the ball and the cup to believe anything but another unremarkable par was on its way.

Steve Spiliotis walked up to the green and whispered, “Kid, we need you. Where are you?” He stood over the long putt and sent the ball on its journey. It didn’t stop rolling until it vanished beyond the edge of the cup. Birdie. The team reveled the best it could, but there was an awkwardness to the moment. It just wasn’t the same. Sadly, it’s never going to be the same.

Team 334 from Port Jefferson, N.Y., on Long Island – Port Jeff, as the members affectionately call it – has lost its heart and soul. Team leader Frank Bonomo, 42, a New York City firefighter for 17 years, is gone, lost when he and other members of Brooklyn’s Engine Co. 230 were trapped in the World Trade Center towers during the horrific national tragedy of Sept. 11.

Frank Bonomo, or Frankie, was Team 334’s vocal leader, inspirational cheerleader and cut-up clown, all rolled into one dynamic, 5-foot-8, 190-pound package. He was a 15-handicapper whose golf swing had more moving parts than a V-12 engine, a hard-shelled yet soft-hearted man who was equal parts Joe Pesci and Yogi Berra. “He was very noticeable when he arrived,” said John Kim, Port Jeff’s head pro. “He always put a smile on my face. It was very contagious.”

Spiliotis, 39, was Bonomo’s best friend and is godfather to one of Bonomo’s two young children, 15-month-old Julianna. Bonomo also leaves a son, Joseph, 4. “It’s been tough on all of us to be down here without him. We miss our buddy. It just didn’t seem right, playing golf after you’ve just lost your best friend. . . . But he loved the game of golf. He loved the action. This isn’t going to bring him back, but it’s what he would have wanted. I’m sure of that.”

Bonomo’s widow, Margarite, who has been a pillar of strength, knew this, and tried convincing the group – Spiliotis, Kim, Peter Englezos and Greg Mehous – to get on a plane, go to Orlando, Fla., and play. Over drinks at the club about a week before the Olds Scramble teed off, Englezos and Spiliotis, the general manager at Port Jeff, decided that’s what they’d do. And shortly after saying one final farewell to a fallen hero, where they exited beneath three 40-by-60-foot American flags attached to hook and ladders draped across Highway 25A in Brookhaven, they headed to Florida. Jerry Spiliotis, Steve’s dad, became the group’s fifth player.

What ensued was a week the Port Jeff five never will forget. The outpouring of support floored every one of them. A year removed from being yet another faceless team among 300 or so at the finals, they drew handshakes and hugs just for showing up. When they walked into the clubhouse at Falcon’s Fire after the first round, the other competitors rose. Standing ovation. At registration, a total stranger took out his checkbook and wrote a $1,000 check to the New York City Widows and Children’s Benefit Fund. In all, more then $8,500 was donated in Bonomo’s name.

There was no shortage of stories on Frankie, like the time he was playing with Spiliotis at the difficult par-4 10th at Port Jeff. Both watched Frankie’s second shot sail way left, over the trees, far out-of-bounds. When they arrived to the green, though, there was his ball, its familiar markings evident, just inches from the cup. Frankie tapped in for birdie, winning the hole. It wasn’t until five or six holes later they ran into another group of golfers. “Hey, Frankie,” one said, “did you get your ball? We found it across the road, and tossed it toward the green . . .”

When he wasn’t at the firehouse or spending time with his family, Bonomo loved to play golf. He’d play two or three times a week, often with Spiliotis and Englezos, playing $25 or $50 Nassaus just for the action. He’d even constructed his own putting green at home last spring. As evidenced by the exaggerated loop in his swing, he didn’t take the game overly serious. Said Mehous, “Frankie would always say to us, ‘Kid, it’s just a game.’ ”

The Port Jeff five missed the cut at the Olds Scramble, losing in an eight-team playoff, but showed a great deal of spirit – the type of spunk that would have made their fallen buddy proud. In the middle of the tournament, moments after summoning divine assistance (“Kid, we need you”) to get the team jump-started and seconds after his ball dove into the cup, Spiliotis walked off the green and didn’t know whether to laugh or cry.

So he did both. For Team 334, it was that kind of week.

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