Faces of Long Island celebrates the uniqueness of everyday Long Islanders. In their own words, they tell us about their life experiences, challenges and triumphs. Newsday launched this social media journey into the human experience to shine a light on the diverse people of this wonderful place we call home.

‘You always have to do your best whether you win, lose or draw.’

Central Islip

“I was born in Amityville but raised from a young age in Brentwood in a hardworking blue-collar family. My mom is from Emporia, Virginia, which is very Southern. She raised me, my brother and two sisters while she was attending night school, and when she became a nurse, she was the nurse for the whole neighborhood. Before anyone went to the hospital, they would go to see her first.

“My dad, who had several jobs, including working as a truck driver, was very involved in community youth sports programs. He’d drive around the neighborhood, and if you were up to no good, he would tell you, ‘Get in the car, you’re going to be part of the team.’

“I always liked playing sports, but my younger brother was a much better athlete than I was. I played Pop Warner Little League like anybody else. I was good, but never the best. My dad instilled in me the work ethic that you always have to do your best whether you win, lose or draw. I became a lineman on the high school football team, but my college choice was different from everybody else I knew who wanted to play professional football.

“I elected to go to Nassau Community College [NCC] instead of applying to a Division 3 college. Nassau had one of the best junior college football teams in the country when I went there.

“At NCC, I was a National Junior College All-American as an offensive line guard and tackle. Completing my associate’s degree allowed me to transfer with a full scholarship to Georgia Tech, a top Division 1 school where I played for two years.

“At 6 feet, 4 and a half inches tall, I was a short lineman. I wasn’t one of the players expected to get drafted into the NFL. I even hurt my knee during my senior year, though I did come back to play the last two games of the season. I wasn’t on the NFL’s radar, but one day my trainer said a scout was coming to look at us.

“I made sure that if the guys they were looking at were doing a 40-yard dash or lifting weights, I was nearby doing it, too. It got me noticed. The scout wanted to know who was this guy going all out? I went from possibly not being drafted to being the first one drafted from Georgia Tech that year, in the fifth round, by the Pittsburgh Steelers.”

I was told I was never going to walk again.

“My NFL career was marked by triumphs — and also injuries, which continue to impact my health. After the Green Bay Packers signed me to their active roster in 1994, and during my three and a half years there, I was lucky enough to break into the starting lineup.

“When we won the Super Bowl in 1997, defeating the New England Patriots — that was just before the Tom Brady era started — it was amazing. It was surreal.

“My mother, my father, family and friends all went to New Orleans. Not just being in a Super Bowl, but also winning, that was a dream come true that very few people get to experience. I wear that Super Bowl ring with a lot of pride.

“I finished my NFL career with the San Francisco 49ers, and my professional career playing two years for NFL Europe’s Barcelona Dragons and three years for the Canadian Football League Hamilton Tiger-Cats. Then I found myself in my early 30s — moved back into my childhood bedroom, coming off my second knee surgery, experiencing my first bout of depression — thinking, ‘What am I going to do now?’

“The first job I took after my football career was maintenance at an assisted living facility. I went from the Super Bowl to cleaning a toilet, and that was very humbling. But it goes back to the work ethic my parents taught me —you are never too good to do what you need to do.

“Within a year, I was running the maintenance department, and slowly but surely, people stated to realize who I was, and it was like a celebrity being there. One day, we had a gas leak in the building, and I carried a lady down a flight of stairs and hurt my back. I thought I had just tweaked a muscle.

“With my athletic background, I kept going, but weeks went by and it didn’t get better or worse. I figured I needed therapy, so I took off from work to do some light physical therapy. That didn’t work, and neither did aggressive physical therapy.

“About six months later, I started declining and was paralyzed from the waist down. I had no feeling below my waist, I was urinating on myself, and that led to emergency surgery to stop the paralysis from spreading. I was told I was never going to walk again. That probably sunk me lower than I’ve ever been.”

I wanted to do more for the community. I decided to start my own nonprofit.

“I was at home, on the internet, and I saw a world-known speaker who is a quadriplegic. He was telling able-bodied people how to live life, and the message I got was that if you want to get over your own problem, help someone else with theirs.

“I volunteered at Big Brothers Big Sisters, mentoring a 6-foot-four, almost 300-pound 14-year-old young man who had fallen into bad habits. His life turned around. It was therapy for me just as much as it was for him. I started wiggling my toes, feeling pain but also getting my strength and mobility back.

“I wanted to do more for the community. I decided to start my own nonprofit, Dream 68 Inc. I became an active member of the board of the Long Island chapter of the American Red Cross, where I learned what it takes to run a nonprofit organization, everything from fundraising events to keeping the books.

“Every year for about a decade, Dream 68 Inc. has fed hundreds of people on Thanksgiving. I work closely with shelters where there’s a need for toys and clothing. A lot of people like to give during the holidays, but people have needs year-round, and we try and fill that void.

“I recently had my first major fundraiser. I got my real estate license as a means to donate back to charities through every transaction. Last year I published a book, ‘Reflections of a Champion.’ My co-author and I had gone to speaking engagements at VA hospitals across the country, where we got veterans dealing with PTSD and in amputee units to play flag football to get their minds off what they are going through.

“On my first trip to Milwaukee, at an autograph signing, a gentleman came up to me with a helmet I’d worn, which he had bought. I signed it and gave it back to him. He said, ‘I see it means more to you than me,’ so he gifted it to me. It was such a powerful trip that I felt compelled to put it on paper.

“We started writing during the pandemic, and next thing we had 20 chapters. We wanted to make it a purposeful book, not telling people what to do, but what works for me. It’s not a football book, but there are football stories in there. It’s about overcoming adversity. It’s going to make you laugh, cry and play on your heart strings.”

Interviewed by Jim Merritt

‘We all carry our indigenous culture with us, and now we are reclaiming our identity.’

Central Islip

“In 2013, I was asked to rescue Long Island’s annual Puerto Rican Day Parade when the organization that had been running it had no money to cover the expenses.

“Rescuing the parade gave me the opportunity to invite new Latino cultural groups that today make up the community. It is a parade of Latin American nations where we honor the Puerto Rican pioneers, and we open the doors to celebrate new immigrants from Latin America.

“At our last parade in June 2019, before COVID-19, we had over 78 groups with 3,000 parading. A multigenerational and multicultural crowd of over 50,000 people, including tourists, gathered across Fifth Avenue in Brentwood to enjoy traditional Puerto Rican and Latino dances, floats and food.

“I am hopeful to be back in 2022 and celebrate our culture again. Saving the parade was giving back to the community its history, its culture, its dances, its laughter, for which I will always be very proud. I have also fought hard to rescue our art center.

… we transformed the abandoned space into a cultural center with an art gallery and backyard flower garden with a stage for outdoor performances.

“When Teatro Yerbabruja, the theater group I founded in Puerto Rico, needed a permanent home on Long Island, a local immigration lawyer helped me to find an abandoned building on Carlton Avenue in Central Islip’s downtown. The building and its backyard were being used by local gang members. I was not there to police people because I understood the history of why they were there. So, I became friends with them and convinced them to move. They understood what I was doing was good for the community. Eventually, we transformed the abandoned space into a cultural center with an art gallery and backyard flower garden with a stage for outdoor performances. In 2016, our center was shut down because the town declared the building unsafe. In 2019, however, Teatro Yerbabruja was invited to a new headquarters – the Second Avenue Firehouse Gallery and Event Space in Bay Shore.”

“The community organization that restored the building loved what I was doing and the diversity of my audience. We have a gallery and performing space, a studio with creative space for artists and a backyard garden.

“On Oct. 11, we kicked off the National Endowment for the Arts “Big Read Long Island,” an ongoing project with the Shinnecock Nation. We had an Indigenous People’s Day celebration, an art show, an open mic and a reading by U.S. Poet Laureate Joy Harjo, a member of the Muscogee (Creek) Nation.

“All the artists that work with me have indigenous roots — Inca background from Ecuador, Aztec from Mexico, Maya from El Salvador, Mapuche, from Chile. We all migrated to Long Island in the same way native Americans were pushed onto reservations. We all carry our indigenous culture with us, and now we are reclaiming our identity.”