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Courtesy Raul Fantauzzi Fantauzzi (left) in playing days Courtesy Raul Fantauzzi

Handball, Hardship, and a Determined Comeback

Raul Fantauzzi mastered the art of Handball at an exceptional pace. Within just a few years of discovering the sport at age 17, he had beaten the top-ranked players in the city, and claimed the top ranking among handball players in the five boroughs.

But just as quickly as he climbed to the top, his fall was precipitous.

With a lack of sponsorships or college scholarships for the sport, the game was not a financially viable option for his future, and he resigned himself to his life as a high school track & field and handball coach.

But now, nearing 60 years of age, Fantauzzi is eyeing a comeback.

Fantauzzi was first introduced to the sport on his two miles walk home from Harry Van Arsdale High School on North 6th Street to his home in Bushwick.

On one of those walks he noticed a group of 20-30 adults playing what he later would find out was handball, on a single wall of a factory close to his home. Among the players was his 13-year-old brother, Jose, taking on players twice his age, and emerging victorious.

“His skill level surpassed that of anyone there,” said Fantauzzi. “My brother at a young age had incredibly agility, and a phenomenal ability to read the ball.”

Regardless, his first impression of the game was that it was a waste of time. In fact it was a girl playing the sport, who he noticed amongst the group the following day, that caught his attention. That same day he got his younger brother to teach him the rules of the sport, and he joined the group the very next day.

It didn’t take him long to be obsessed with the sport. Soon he was teaming up with his brother and the duo was an unstoppable doubles team in the neighborhood. In singles, however, he remained no match for his younger sibling.

For a year, Fantauzzi traveled to different handball courts throughout the city to compete with players of all levels and ages. The experience proved invaluable. The following year he placed third at a tournament in Lindsay Park. Fantauzzi recalled that the trophy was almost half his size, and that he received a hero’s welcome upon his return to the neighborhood.

From then on there was no turning back. He began playing at the West 4th Street Court, the Mecca of handball courts in the City. Soon after, he was on his way to beating the top players in the game, and claiming the number one ranking citywide.

But life caught up with Fantauzzi. There were no lucrative deals in the offing, no scholarships to attend college, Handball, as he put it, was a poor man’s pastime – it certainly wasn’t the basis for supporting a family, and Fantauzzi was already married at the time.

But it was a family tragedy that helped shape the next stage of Fantauzzi’s life. A fire left them homeless and without possessions. For three months they camped out in abandoned buildings.

“It was incredible how we survived those three months in the freezing cold,” said Fantauzzi. “We experienced really treacherous conditions.”

But they came out stronger for it. And Fantauzzi began coaching at several schools. In the late 90s, he accepted a job coaching the track and field team as well as the handball team at his own high school – Harry Van Arsdale.

He was not going to let what stopped him from continuing in the sport be the reason his students stopped pursuing their dreams

“I always emphasized the importance of education,” said Fantauzzi. “I was always trying to make them realize their own destiny.”

And that they certainly did, winning the high school level citywide handball tournament during his time there.

Many of his students still fondly recall their time with Fantauzzi

“He taught me about life,” said Dennis Ortiz, 25, the captain of the handball team from 2005-2006, his last two years at the high school. “He was a mentor both on and outside the court. He taught us about self-respect. I don’t think I would have gone to college if it wasn’t for him.”

However life once again played truant in Fantauzzi’s ambitions. Health problems forced him to leave his position at the school at 2009, and he currently works as a security officer at P.S. 34 on Norman Avenue – but even that couldn’t dampen his spirit or passion for the game.

In 2012, in large part to improve his health, Fantauzzi took up the sport again, and though he no is nowhere near the level he played at before, the desire to reach the top is undiminished. He has been invited to play at an international tournament at the end of 2015, and he has made his life’s mission to be able to compete in it – training at least twice a week to get back into shape.

“I know it will be extremely difficult for me to revive my body from the dormant state it has been in for so many years,” said Fantauzzi. “I come to work because I have to take care of my family, but I’ve also never been a quitter. I could die attempting to get back but one way or another I will attempt the impossible.”

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