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