Saved by Sports

Fourteen years ago a high school junior named Jermaine Ewell was beaten into a coma by a former schoolmate and his crew. Both the victim and his assailant were athletes, and that was the key to Ewell's survival--and, in the end, to his attacker's redemption
June 26, 2005

They all have a story. Everyone in Arena Football2 can recite a saga that purports to explain why he's playing in this quirky indoor league that's at least a Hail Mary from the NFL, earning $200 a game and living in a motel room by the interstate. Just scan the field at the Albany (N.Y.) Conquest's training camp, and you'll see what we mean. The guy throwing those quick out passes? He's the starting quarterback, D. Bryant. He played for Duke but transferred to Iowa Wesleyan and never found traction there. The guy rushing the passer? That's linebacker Jameel Dumas, who was a star at Syracuse before blowing out his left knee. The kicker sitting on his helmet in the end zone? Vinny Cirrincione, a local kid. By the time he realized he had a knack for booting an oblong ball through the uprights, he had skipped college to work at his parents' pizzeria.

"Everyone is here for a reason--a bad decision, an injury, a personal problem, something that derailed his career," says Albany's coach, Richard Davis, a disarmingly straight-talking Texan who himself will last only six games before being fired by the Conquest. "People see this league as a pipeline. These guys are happy for this chance, but they aren't necessarily satisfied being here. They're aspiring to the NFL. At least I hope they are!"

But this spring there was one player who was content simply to be running around the turf in Albany's Pepsi Arena. Jermaine Ewell couldn't stop smiling as he worked through the tip drills and the thug drills, absorbing and dispensing hits. Making it to the NFL had once been his obsession. But that was a long time ago. His dreadlocks poking out from a helmet that obscured the zippers of surgical scars on his head, the 6'1", 230-pound Ewell was simply experiencing football again: the sounds, the rhythms, the lulls followed by spasms of violence. That was plenty.

Ewell wouldn't survive the Conquest's final cuts, but that almost didn't matter. He was back on the field. At 31 he was nearly a decade older than some of his teammates, but he didn't look it. He hadn't played more than a few weeks of football since 1990, but he concealed that pretty well too. On the day he handed in his playbook, he picked up his bag and thanked the coaches for the audition. He was gone before most of the other players got wind of his how-I-ended-up-here story--the most arresting tale of them all.

They called him the Streak. Playing linebacker and fullback for the Lawrence (N.Y.) High Golden Tornadoes, Jermaine Ewell was a brutal tackler with a rippling upper body and a sixth sense for where a play was headed. But his biggest asset was his speed. Timed in the 40-yard dash at 4.4 seconds, he was the fastest kid on the field, a DSL modem in a dial-up league. "You'd think there was no way Jermaine could make the play," says Richard Mollo, his coach then, "but he was so quick, it was like--bam!--and the other guy would be on the ground with Jermaine on top of him."

In the fall of 1990, Jermaine's junior season, he led the team in solo tackles. Before he was named to various all-conference and all-county teams, scouts and coaches from college programs on the order of Virginia Tech sat in the Lawrence bleachers to get a look at him. A solid senior season and Jermaine would be a lock to get a full ride in Division I-A. "He got better with every game," says Pat Palleschi, a co-captain that season who later played at Hofstra. "There was no doubt he was going to play at the next level."

Jermaine was a minor celebrity throughout the Five Towns--a string of communities on the South Shore of Long Island that include Lawrence--but it was as much for his winning personality as for what he did on the football field. He may have been an African-American kid in a predominantly white and Jewish enclave, the son of a domestic in one of the most affluent zip codes in the U.S., but he moved easily in all social circles. Despite a learning disability that kept his grades in the B and C range, Jermaine was beloved by his teachers. The odd jobs he did (mowing yards, painting houses, restoring deck chairs) put him in touch with the community's adult movers and shakers. "He was the coolest kid you could imagine," says Mollo, a father figure to Jermaine, whose dad had died a few years before. "Guys, girls, older, younger, black, white, jock, not a jock--everyone wanted to be his friend."

Syd Mandelbaum, a former Lawrence school board member who runs a hunger relief organization, offers perhaps the highest praise in the Five Towns' lexicon: He says Jermaine was "a real mensch." So it was no surprise that when trouble found Jermaine, a crowd rushed to his defense.

On June 1, 1991, the last Saturday night of his junior year, Jermaine, then 17, went to a "key party"--at which underage drinkers could suckle on a keg provided they surrendered their car keys to the host--and met up with a girl named Nikki Diamond. This didn't go over well with one of Nikki's old flames, Shannon Siegel. A husky former baseball star at Lawrence who was the starting third baseman at Adelphi College, Siegel was at the party with his pickup basketball buddy James (Jimbo) Peralta and three of Jimbo's pals from the Bayside section of Queens: Ian Pearl, David Donahue and Gregory Kussoff. Nikki would later claim that, out of Jermaine's earshot, Siegel asked her what she was doing with "nigger money." (Jermaine had given Nikki $5 to pay the party's admission and beer charge.) Siegel vigorously denies having used the n word but concedes that he and his pals had been drinking and were giving Nikki a hard time.

Regardless, when Nikki told Jermaine what Siegel had said, Jermaine was offended. But more than that, he was confused. They had mutual friends, and they'd never had a problem. Two months earlier they had been part of a small group that had driven to Manhattan to visit a club. Now, as Jermaine confronted Siegel, an army of classmates backed him up. No one raised a fist--certainly not Jermaine, who didn't even curse, much less fight. But it was made clear that Siegel and his four friends were no longer welcome at the party. "It wasn't like some sort of big feud," Jermaine recalls. "They were drinking. They said things they shouldn't have said. They left. I thought it was cool."

It wasn't cool. Siegel was reeling not only from a 40-ounce Olde English malt liquor but also from a potent cocktail of rage, immaturity and humiliation. A few years earlier Siegel could have staked a claim to being the Man at Lawrence High. Now, clearly, there was a new Man--who liked a girl he had once liked. Worse, Siegel had just been chased from a party by a group of kids, most of whom had been freshmen when he was a senior, in front of his pal Jimbo and Jimbo's running buddies. "I should have walked away," Siegel says. "Jermaine and I would have seen each other the next day and probably hugged."

Instead, Siegel and his companions peeled off in two cars, met up at a gas station and hatched a plan. They would go to Siegel's home, arm themselves with stickball bats, return to the party and kick some Lawrence High ass.

At the party, meanwhile, the kegs had been drained and most of the crowd had retreated to the nearby Atlantic Beach boardwalk, which runs between the Atlantic Ocean and a bay. Around midnight Jermaine was leaning on a railing and talking to Nikki when Siegel, Peralta, Pearl, Donahue and Kussoff showed up. According to several witnesses, Siegel, the college baseball player, took the first cut. Jermaine never saw the blow coming. The wood collided violently with the right side of his head. He was likely unconscious before his head slammed against the boardwalk. For the next 20 to 30 seconds, witnesses say, the gang of five beat and kicked Jermaine's head as if it were a piñata.

Stephen Lieberman and Tony Franzese, two Lawrence kids, were hanging out on the boardwalk and heard Nikki screaming. They jumped on top of Jermaine to protect him. For their heroism they got the business end of the bats and suffered minor injuries.

By the time the beating had ended and the five marauders had scattered, Jermaine's body was convulsing. In the emergency room of Peninsula General Hospital, in Far Rockaway, he lost his pulse and his heartbeat. "Medically," the ER physician would later say, "he died in front of me." Jermaine was revived but remained in a coma. His head had swelled to twice its normal size. When Coach Mollo arrived at the hospital, doctors asked if he'd thought of what to tell his players in case Jermaine died. When Jermaine's mother, Earnestine, arrived, the doctors had a question for her too.

"Is your son an organ donor?"

Jermaine Ewell didn't die that night. Neurosurgeon Chris Overby, figuring there was nothing to lose, performed an emergency craniotomy, drilling through Jermaine's skull to remove a blood clot and repair lacerations in his brain. As Jermaine lay comatose, hundreds of Lawrence classmates and people from the community gathered in the hospital parking lot.

When Jermaine emerged from the coma five days later, he told a friend, "Shannon Siegel snuffed me." He had slurred speech, searing headaches and no vision in one eye. He was hooked up to tubes and held down by restraints. The kid who'd had 4.4 speed a week earlier was unable to move his legs. Even the trauma specialist used the word grotesque to describe Jermaine's state. "If he hadn't been in such superb physical condition and with such strong organs, he probably wouldn't have survived that night," says Overby. "Statistically, he should be dead or in a persistent vegetative state."

Anyone who'd seen Jermaine put up plates of iron in the Lawrence High weight room was aware of his physical strength. But his internal fortitude surprised even those closest to him. When he was allowed to receive visitors, he cracked self-deprecating jokes and thanked folks for coming by. "From the very beginning he was so at peace with what happened to him, it was almost eerie," says Tamara Steckler, Jermaine's godmother. "He was not sure if he'd walk again, and he was the one cheering up everyone in the room."

He approached rehab the same way he'd approached football: by setting goals, training like hell and seeing where it got him. When the pain from the headaches kicked in, he took Motrin and shook it off. When the blurred vision made him sleepy, he forced himself to stay awake and pushed on. He hadn't reached those 250 pounds on the bench press overnight, so now, too, he would work to gradually build his body back up. He went from a wheelchair to using a walker to walking with a cane.

Instead of working out twice a day in preparation for a monster senior season, as he had planned, Jermaine spent his summer in the hospital. From there he went to Gaylord Hospital, a rehabilitation center in Wallingford, Conn., where nurses grew accustomed to hearing him groan in the middle of the night as he rose early to start his exercises. Once he disobeyed the doctors and tried to walk down the hall without his cane. His legs gave out, he fell and his plastic urine bag exploded. When the nurses found him lying on the floor, soaked in his own urine, he was giggling. "Guess I fumbled," he told them.

The case of Jermaine Ewell had all the markings of a cause cél√®bre. It was a perfect storm of topics the mass media find irresistible: kids, sports, violence and, not least, race. Plus it came at a time when race relations in the New York City area were at a low point. Two years earlier a black teenager named Yusuf Hawkins had been fatally shot in broad daylight for having had the audacity to walk around the predominantly white Bensonhurst section of Brooklyn. Not long after Jermaine was beaten, in the summer of 1991, Yankel Rosenbaum, a rabbinical student from Australia, would be stabbed to death by a young man in a crowd of African-Americans in the Brooklyn neighborhood of Crown Heights. Without much effort the assault on Jermaine could have been made part of the same ugly tapestry: A black football star gets bludgeoned into a coma by a gang of white kids over an interracial relationship.

Except that Jermaine and his family wouldn't let that happen. Scan the newspaper accounts from 1991, and you won't find Jermaine making a single disparaging remark about his attackers. "Honestly, I was just concentrating on my recovery," he says now. "I didn't have to suppress anger or revenge or anything like that, because I couldn't spend energy on that. I had to put everything I had into getting better."

While Jermaine was still in the hospital, the Reverend Al Sharpton organized a racially charged protest on the boardwalk where the beating had occurred. Jermaine's relatives sent word that they had no interest in being involved. "He was trying to make it something it wasn't," Jermaine says of Sharpton. "This was about five guys, and four of them weren't even from here. To try and paint the entire community [as racist] was unfair." Sharpton's rally went on as planned, but without the subject of it lending his support, it fizzled.

If Jermaine treated his recovery as a competitive sport, the community was his team. When word got out that he lacked health insurance, donations rolled in. Classmates sent dollar bills, sometimes even coins. Doctors, lawyers and bankers sent hundreds and sometimes thousands of dollars. Strangers offered to run errands for Jermaine's mom. Once he left the hospital, Jermaine couldn't go to a deli or diner without someone offering to pick up the tab.

"The way the people here supported me--and I don't just mean the money--was unbelievable," he says. "I felt that people were cheering for me, the same as when I was playing football."

Beyond a full recovery, Jermaine's overarching goal was to graduate with his class at Lawrence High. He needed a full-time tutor. He needed to take tests without time limits. But on June 30, 1992, he walked gingerly down the aisle and picked up his diploma as applause and tears cascaded about him.

Meanwhile, the five attackers had been arrested and charged with a variety of crimes, including attempted murder. Predictably their ties, tenuous to begin with, frayed quickly, and each man pointed a finger at someone else. Donahue agreed to plead guilty to second-degree riot, partially in exchange for testifying against Siegel, and was sentenced only to probation. Siegel defiantly went to trial and, contradicting many witnesses, asserted that not only had he never struck Jermaine but he had also tried to talk the other four defendants out of the attack. Siegel was convicted of first-degree assault as well as conspiracy, riot and criminal possession of a weapon. Imposing a sentence of seven to 20 years, Nassau County Court Judge Donald Belfi gave Siegel a withering stare and said, "To jump someone from behind and to beat him as he lay unconscious is the epitome of cowardice."

After that Kussoff, Pearl and Peralta quickly pleaded out. None of the three would spend more than three years in prison.

There were no bars or walls or spools of razor wire around Jermaine, but he too had to live with limits on his freedom and potential. He enrolled at Howard University in Washington, D.C., but dropped out when his short-term memory loss and persistent headaches made it almost impossible to keep up with schoolwork. He turned inward and seldom left his house. While he was grateful for the sympathy from so many quarters--his favorite football team, the New York Jets, named him honorary captain for a game and invited him to watch from a luxury suite--the attention began to embarrass him. "Just picking up the pieces and trying to get things back to normal," he says with a sigh, "was harder than I'd ever imagined."

He spent most of his 20s in a fog that seemed impenetrable at times. He has no doubt about what enabled him to disperse it. "Being an athlete is what saved me," he says. "It saved me that night, and it saved me throughout this whole process. Put a goal in front of me, I'm gonna reach it and then go for the next one. That's pretty much the essence of what an athlete does."

In time he was walking without his cane and putting on muscle. His stamina and equilibrium improved. "Who knows," he confided to a friend one day, "I may even play football again."

If there's anything worse than going to prison, it might be going to prison as a suburban white kid convicted of an assault with racial overtones. Shannon Siegel was braced for the worst. But after spending the last 13 years at Clinton Correctional Facility in Dannemora, N.Y., he says he hasn't had so much as a heated argument with another inmate. The guards back him up on this.

See, being an athlete has saved Siegel too. Smallish, somewhat pasty and prone to stammering when he gets nervous, inmate 93A1482 may not cut an imposing figure, but when other prisoners saw him throw a perfect spiral or go deep in the hole to field a ground ball or pull up on the fast break to pop a jumper, he gained a measure of status. Siegel figures he plays sports 20 hours a week, mostly during yard time, prison's version of recess. It falls to him to fashion balls out of tape and other items. It also falls to Siegel, a former New York Mets spring training batboy, to arbitrate discussions about the best teams.

"I know you always hear it, but sports really do break down barriers," Siegel says. "You might not think that growing up on Long Island is the best preparation for maximum security prison, but sports, you know, make differences go away."

He also uses the sports calendar to keep connected to the outside world. He has never surfed the Web or used a cellphone or downloaded tunes onto an iPod. His slang is stuck in the early '90s, and he makes references to television shows that have been off the air for years. But as long as he can read Knicks box scores or turn his transistor radio at the right angle to pick up Mets games late at night--"Go ahead and quiz me about any New York team," he pleads--life isn't completely whizzing by him.

Like Ewell, Siegel has made the best of his circumstances. He earned a college degree by correspondence and became the first inmate in Clinton's history to receive an advanced degree--an MBA from City University in Bellevue, Wash. His prison job is to help other inmates earn their GEDs. More than 100 men have done so under his tutelage.

Still, Siegel has had oceans of time to try to make sense of June 1, 1991. What could account for his lapse in humanity? How could a college baseball player with no police record, a new Corvette and a newer girlfriend beat another man's brains out? "I was drunk, I was young, I was stupid," Siegel says in a tone that suggests he's frustrated that there's no more satisfying answer. "I was making bad decisions, hanging out with [people] I shouldn't have. This eats at my soul every day."

Siegel also spends time wondering why the parole board regularly turns him down. He is supposed to be released next St. Patrick's Day, by which time he'll have served 14 years. Some rapists and even killers have served less time. How could that be, especially when Jermaine Ewell's four other attackers combined didn't spend 14 years in the joint? Is the board, Siegel asks, "trying to show that middle-class kids don't get special treatment?"

He's not alone in thinking he's no longer in arrears to society. Franzese and Lieberman, the other two victims, have sent letters to the parole board seeking clemency for Siegel. In 1998 Clinton superintendent Daniel Senkowski wrote to the state's Executive Clemency Bureau on Siegel's behalf. "Shannon Siegel's demeanor while incarcerated has been exemplary," Senkowski asserted. "It seems unlikely that [he] could derive any further benefit from continued incarceration. However, society is currently being deprived of the positive contributions he could be making."

In a sharp departure from his trial testimony, Siegel finally owns up to his actions that night. "For a long time," he says, "I was afraid to take responsibility. [But] the fact is, I have no one to blame but myself. Maybe I was swept up in this wave of politics and hype. But after a lot of reflection, I came to the proverbial moment of clarity: None of that mattered. The only thing that mattered was that Jermaine was injured, and lives were changed forever."

He still seethes when the topic of race surfaces. He points out that he always had black friends growing up, he's always listened to rap music, and even today he watches BET on the black-and-white TV in his cell. He claims he was "real tight" with the late rapper Tupac Shakur, who spent much of 1995 in Clinton on a conviction for sexual abuse.

Can't one embrace black friends and black culture and still be poisoned by racism? "Maybe," Siegel says, "but that's not me. Race was never a part of this."

For years Siegel felt a burning need to apologize to Ewell face-to-face. For years Ewell, too, wanted to confront Siegel, look him in the eye and distill everything to a single question: Why did you do this to me?

On a brisk Saturday in the spring of 2001, Shannon's mother, Joyce, made the six-hour drive from Long Island to the Clinton prison with Ewell riding shotgun in her car. Asked if he didn't feel funny taking a road trip with the mother of the kid who'd beaten him nearly to death, Ewell shrugs. "Maybe it was a little awkward, but she didn't do anything to me," he says. "She was a real nice woman."

As Ewell passed through the security entrance and heard the gate slam behind him, he felt a rush of panic. What am I doing? When he and Siegel finally met near the prison commissary, they were both flooded by years' worth of thoughts and emotions. Siegel was the one to break the silence. "Yo," he said softly. "My bad."

Yo, my bad?

"You know when you've been thinking about saying something perfectly for years, and the words just fail you?" Siegel says now. "That's what happened."

For the next three hours, the entire visiting period, they talked easily, the conversation meandering from music to mutual friends to, of course, sports. Eventually they found their way back to the assault, and Ewell got at least some of the answers he'd been seeking. Siegel apologized and reiterated his claim that race had not been a factor. Even if fate had not yoked them together, even if they had not spent their 20s in two different kinds of prison, they had plenty in common. To Ewell, this only underscored the senselessness of the beating. "You ruin two lives, you involve families, you shake up a community," he says, "and for what?"

When he returned to Long Island, Ewell didn't often mention having seen Siegel. But friends and relatives of both men say the visit accelerated their healing. "It was absolutely cathartic," says Steckler, Ewell's godmother. "Emotionally, I think his recovery started that day." Two weeks after the visit the parole board received this letter from Ewell: On Friday April 13th, I went to visit Shannon at Clinton Correctional Facility. We had a chance to talk and out of this visit, a full reconciliation was achieved.... I believe that Shannon has grown from this experience and has learned from his mistakes. He deserves a chance at parole and to restart his life. I am in full support of his efforts to become a positive member of society.

By that time, lung cancer was winning the war it had been waging against Joyce Siegel. Before she died, neighbors were curious about the kid with long hair and a slight limp who paid her periodic visits. By then she was too weak to explain that it was Jermaine Ewell, checking in on her. "The way he treated my mother," Shannon says, his voice catching, "is something I'll never forget."

By last year Ewell's headaches had stopped, his vision had cleared, his equilibrium had fully returned. But when he told friends and family members that he was thinking about returning to football, they all gave the same response: You need to get your head examined. He took it literally, seeking out Overby for medical clearance. Grudgingly the neurosurgeon gave it. "He's an adult who can make choices, and physically he can play," says Overby. "I explained that when you have a serious head injury, you don't want to put yourself at risk for another. Do I want him playing a contact sport? No."

Ewell says he knows the risks, but he adds, "I have to do this for me. This isn't about making it to the pros. It's about getting back something that was taken from me."

Ken Leistner played football at Lawrence High in the '60s with Lyle Alzado and later became a chiropractor and a strength trainer for elite athletes. Like just about everyone around the Five Towns, he'd followed Ewell's recovery. "When I heard he was thinking about making a comeback," he says, "I thought, I can help him get stronger."

Apart from Ewell's daily visits to a swank gym where, until recently, he was a personal trainer, he has three sessions a week with the man he calls Dr. Ken. Leistner has transformed his clapboard house on a quiet tree-lined block in Valley Stream into a spartan gym frequented by NFL players, track stars and wheelchair athletes. Nautilus machines are scattered through the basement; the driveway is strewn with boulders and tires and a foundry's worth of iron slabs. Neighbors are inured to watching large men vomit on the curbside tulips. "Dr. Ken doesn't pretend," says Chip Morton, the Cincinnati Bengals' strength coach. "The guy is just brutal, but one of the best at extracting effort from his athletes."

Training with NFL types such as former Detroit Lions Pro Bowl linebacker Stephen Boyd and former New York Giants defensive end Frank Ferrara, Ewell held his own and developed his Body by Zeus: cables of veins up his arms, bulging pecs, fire-hydrant thighs. Leistner worked his contacts this spring, and Ewell was invited to try out for Arena Football2 teams. "The question," Leistner says, "was, How will this guy respond to taking a lick?"

The answer came during Ewell's first practice with the Bakersfield Blitz in California. During a blocking play, he collided with a 245-pound linebacker. "It was like being hit by a car," Ewell says. He took inventory of his body, determined that everything was O.K. and returned to the line of scrimmage.

He didn't make the Bakersfield team, but at both its camp and the Albany Conquest's he made a good impression. "There was some rust there, which was to be expected, but I told him he was welcome back next year," says Paul Press, the Blitz director of football operations. "He was all class."

Last month Ewell was offered a job as the Conquest's strength and conditioning coach. But for now his flame for playing still burns. "I know my body can handle the contact," he says. "I haven't gotten playing football out of my system." He talks about trying to hook up with a Canadian Football League team or trying out for NFL Europe. His immediate goal is to stay in shape and continue adding mass.

So it was that on a balmy Friday morning in May, Ewell was in Leistner's driveway working out with three other football players, "taking it to the limit and then going further," Leistner says. Standing there exhausted, with sweat staining three layers of clothing, Ewell lifted an amount of weight unfathomable to most of us and tried to propel it over his head 10 times. Midway through the reps, with the weight resting on his shoulders, his legs buckled and his back started to curve. He unleashed a scream that pierced the suburban calm.

"Come on, Jermaine, be strong!" yelled Ferrara. "Speed kills, but strength punishes!"

Ewell screamed again. His grip tightened, and damn if he didn't finish off the set.

Jermaine never saw the blow coming. The stickball bat collided violently with his head.

"This isn't about making it to the pros. It's about getting back something that was taken from me."

TWO COLOR PHOTOSPhotographs by David Bergman PARALLEL LIVES Over the years, Ewell (left) struggled with physical limitations while Siegel endured a long incarceration. COLOR PHOTOCOURTESY OF JERMAINE EWELL BROKEN DREAM Ewell seemed sure to win a Division I football scholarship until the assault shattered his athletic career. COLOR PHOTOCOURTESY OF NASSAU COUNTY POLICE DEPARTMENT IN DENIAL Siegel's refusal to admit guilt contributed to his stiff prison sentence. B/W PHOTONEWSDAY [see caption above] COLOR PHOTONEWSDAY FOOTBALL THERAPY As he recovered from the lingering effects of the assault, Ewell helped out his old team in the early '90s. B/W PHOTONEWSDAY [see caption above] COLOR PHOTOPhotographs by David Bergman UNTIRING With help from Leistner (left, standing), Ewell has grown ever stronger.

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)