08/14/11 10:56am
08/14/2011 10:56 AM

DONALD MIRALLE/GETTY IMAGES | Kerry McCoy reacts to his victory over Tolly Thompson in the Freestyle 120KG Final Match 2 during the 2004 Olympic Team Trials of Wrestling at the RCA Dome on May 23, 2004 in Indianapolis, Indiana. McCoy would go on to represent the U.S. at the Athens Olympics in August.

Kerry McCoy never planned on wrestling.

Growing up in the Longwood School District, he couldn’t wait until he reached seventh grade and could play on a school basketball team.

But when he finally got there, a 12-year-old McCoy was disappointed to learn the school was only offering two junior high sports that winter: track and wrestling.

A friend of his said he was going to wrestle instead, and suggested McCoy do the same.

“I though ‘Sure, why not,’” he recalled in a telephone interview this week. “I thought I knew about wrestling, you know, but I knew about WWF. I knew about Hulk Hogan, Jimmy Superfly Snuka, those guys.”

When he got to his first practice, McCoy was shocked by his surroundings.

There was no ring with ropes he could jump off. No fancy costumes.

“I got to the first practice and coach had us running a bunch of laps,” he said. “I thought, ‘This isn’t wrestling.’”

But something happened at that first practice. McCoy found his sport. Never mind basketball, he was a wrestler now.

He doesn’t quite know how he fell in love at that first practice. He says it certainly wasn’t because he was head and shoulders above the other wrestlers. Because he wasn’t. Not yet anyway.

But it wouldn’t take long.

The first time Kerry McCoy’s name appeared in the newspaper, he wasn’t quite 16 years old.

The 20 Greatest Athletes in area history continues Monday with No. 4.

It was the summer before his junior year of high school and he was being recognized for placing second in a national competition.

What the story doesn’t tell you is that McCoy had only discovered wrestling four years earlier. Yet there he was along with three of his Longwood teammates leading the United States over Canada in the Canadian Friendship Cup competition.

McCoy’s second place finish in the 180-pound division was good enough to earn him a spot in the Cadet World Wrestling Championships in Budapest, Hungary. It was the first glimpse that the youngster from Middle Island could compete on a world stage. And he didn’t disappoint. McCoy would win the silver medal in Hungary, the top finish of any U.S. wrestler.

It was just the beginning of a career spent wrestling the world’s best in unusual places.

McCoy took a vacation the next summer in Siberia as one of 14 American youngsters invited to compete in the Tour du Monde. He moved up in weight to 198 and took home the gold. Two weeks later he won both the Greco-Roman and freestyle wrestling gold medals at the Empire State Games.

McCoy’s rise up the wrestling ranks baffles his friends and former Longwood teammates.

“The most amazing thing about Kerry is the way he became what he is,” said Longwood wrestling great John Lange in an interview this week. “He only started wrestling in seventh grade. So to be able to accomplish all that he did after just a couple years of wrestling, it shows the dedication. He became a true mat rat.”

In high school, McCoy was overshadowed a bit at first by the older Nick Hall and Keith Ketcham, and later by the younger Lange and Rason Phifer, all standout wrestlers for coach Mike Picozzi.

Ketcham was the guy most people credit with putting Longwood wrestling on the map with a pair of county titles in the late 1980s. Hall then became the school’s first state champ in 1991, a year he won the Most Outstanding Wrestler award at the state tournament.

Lange would ultimately become the best high school wrestler in Longwood history. A complete athlete, he was also a star linebacker and fullback on the Lions’ first Suffolk County champion football team in 1993.

That winter season, Lange would claim his third consecutive state wrestling championship, making him the first Section XI wrestler to win three state titles.

McCoy’s high school career gets so lost in the shuffle of the golden age of Longwood wrestling that a list one Newsday reporter wrote for a local wrestling website of the greatest wrestler at each Long Island school makes no mention of him. The writer chose Lange as the Lions’ best, with an honorable mention to the two-time state champ Phifer — and those are two names many folks would put above McCoy at the high school level.

“Those guys were all great wrestlers,” McCoy said. “I never felt like I was anything special in those days. I wrestled because I loved it not because I was necessarily good at it. A guy like Nick Hall, he was my biggest source of improvement. Him kicking my butt all the time.”

LONGWOOD COURTESY PHOTO | Kerry McCoy with legendary Longwood wrestling coach Mike Picozzi in a 1992 photo.

That’s not to say McCoy didn’t find success in his time at Longwood. He entered his senior year as one of the wrestlers to watch in Suffolk County.

In his junior year of 1991 he had captured his first county title and made it all the way to the 177 pound state final, where he lost a 3-2 heartbreaker to Mahopac’s John Degl. McCoy managed just two escape points in the match.

This time around, he wouldn’t be denied a state championship.

He annihilated Centereach’s Robert Hughes 14-5 to claim his second straight county crown on a day that also saw Lange and fellow teammate Duane Thompson win titles.

When the Longwood trio and their Section XI teammates headed to Syracuse to represent Suffolk County in the state tournament, McCoy was named team captain.

“The kid is a real leader,” West Islip coach Tony Mellino told Newsday. “He kept the kids focused and ready.”

Led by McCoy, the 1992 Suffolk squad posted one of the finest performances of any county in the history of the New York State Wrestling Championship. At the time, the team’s 242 1/2 points was the second best of all-time.

Eight champions that year were from Section XI, including the senior from Longwood who had only taken up the sport five years ago.

With a 5-2 win over Ryan Hammersmith of Clarence High, Kerry McCoy was a state champion.

“That’s when I started to get good,” he said. “When I wasn’t just wrestling because I enjoyed it. I was now wrestling because I wanted to win.”

When it came time for John Lange to pick a college, he had a difficult decision to make.

Lots of schools wanted a piece of the tough senior from Ridge, who had just won his third state championship in 1994.

He had narrowed his options to three schools: Wisconsin, Indiana and Penn State.

“And pretty much in that order,” he recently told a reporter for an interview published on a Nittany Lions wrestling site.

The reason Penn State ranked lowest on his list of three final schools could be summed up with the names Kerry and McCoy.

Lange loved McCoy. To this day, he counts him among his best friends. He appreciates everything McCoy did for him in high school, when they were practice partners and the older, bigger McCoy pushed him to the limits on a daily basis — like Hall did for McCoy.

But could he really follow in his friend’s footsteps to Penn State?

“I wanted to be my own person and make my own way,” Lange said. “Kerry had set a high bar there and I wondered what the expectations of me would be when I got there.”

After a subpar freshman season, Kerry McCoy quickly bulked up to heavyweight and made an immediate impact in his sophomore campaign.

That’s because McCoy had just taken College Township, Pennsylvania by storm.

After graduating from Longwood in June of 1992, McCoy immediately began to bulk up for college. Just four months after winning the state title at 177 pounds in his senior year, the 6-foot-2 inch wrestler won the 190-pound title at the Junior World Freestyle Championships in Cali, Colombia.

By the time McCoy’s sophomore season at Penn State rolled around in 1994, he was up to a more natural 215 pounds and wrestling heavyweights.

Despite having to grapple with opponents as much as 60 pounds heavier than him in the heavyweight class, he was ranked first in the nation by February of his sophomore year.

He even defeated Hall, now wrestling at Old Dominion University, in a close decision at the Mat Town Open at Lock Haven University that winter.

McCoy just kept on winning that season. By the time he claimed the Big Ten championship in March, he’d already won 42 matches. He was just five wins away from becoming 13th national champ in Nittany Lions history.

Thirty of the top heavyweights from around the country were invited to the national championships in North Carolina. McCoy was on one side of the bracket and his high school teammate and one-time practice partner Hall was on the other side.

There was a slim chance the two could face each other for the title.

McCoy kept up his end of the bargain, winning all four matches leading up to the finals, including wins over highly respected Dan Hicks of Navy and John Kading of Oklahoma.

Hall, meanwhile, made pretty easy work of West Virginia’s Jim Howard in the first round and advanced to face Northern Iowa’s Justin Greenlee.

Four minutes, 22 seconds in, the No. 2 ranked Greenlee defeated Hall by a fall, dashing any longshot hopes McCoy and his former teammate had of facing each other for the championships.

Instead, it was Greenlee, a familiar foe, that McCoy would face for the title. McCoy had already defeated the Northern Iowa team captain in a decision at the National Wrestling Coaches Association All-Star Classic at the University of Pittsburgh earlier in the year.

It was one of just six losses Greenlee registered all season. Another came in the national championship, where McCoy was again too much for the Iowa product to handle. They’d wrestle to a decision, but McCoy edged him 7-4 in points.

Lange remembers watching from the stands with his father and McCoy’s family.

“It was incredible to watch,” Lange said. “There was a lot of pride seeing him win that title.”

After the victory, McCoy and his family went out with the Langes for dinner.

A wrestling fan spotted McCoy and offered to buy him a beer.

“My mom was like, ‘Uh, he’s only 19,’” McCoy recalled.

In just his sophomore year of college, the kid from Middle Island who didn’t even know what wrestling really was just seven years earlier was the unbeaten NCAA heavyweight champion.

Lange paid a trip to Penn State after that season and McCoy showed him around. At one point on the trip, Lange and McCoy struck up a conversation with one of football coach Joe Paterno’s assistants. The coach said something to Lange that would ultimately help him make up his mind.

“If you’re dumb enough to pass on Penn State,” the coach said. “You probably couldn’t have made it here anyway.”
With that challenge issued, Lange and McCoy were again teammates.

Today, Lange, who would go on to win a Big Ten title and earn All-American honors with a third-place finish at nationals in 1998, looks back on the time he and McCoy spent together at Longwood and Penn State with such fondness.

He credits the older McCoy, who was a senior class president at Longwood and maintained a 3.86 GPA, with helping to make him not just a better wrestler, but a better person.

“Kerry was always just so down to earth and such a good person,” Lange said. “I always wanted to emulate him.”

The two would even go on to become roommates during McCoy’s senior year.

“The tough part about living with him was going to the supermarket,” Lange joked. “Kerry’s throwing Chips Ahoy and Pop Tarts into the cart and the rest of us are eating nothing but chicken breast to make weight.”

It was during that senior year, as McCoy continued to get bigger and stronger, that he made his return to the top of the heavyweight class.

As a junior in 1995, he entered the national championship tournament again ranked No. 1, but lost a semifinal revenge match to Greenlee, and finished third. It stopped a streak of 88 consecutive wins for McCoy, who would redshirt in 1996 in an unsuccessful attempt to make the Olympics.

PENN STATE COURTESY PHOTO | Kerry McCoy defeated Stephen Neal of Cal-State Bakersfield for his second National Championship in 1997. Neal, who would win three Super Bowl rings playing offensive line for the New England Patriots, was perhaps McCoy's fiercest rival on the national level.

But Olympic-level training would ultimately benefit McCoy, who went on to capture his second national title in 1997, becoming just the second Long Island wrestler to ever win multiple national wrestling championships.

Now 235 pounds, McCoy would defeat Stephen Neal of Cal-State Bakersfield 3-2 in the final.

The win was a fitting end to one of the most dominating careers in collegiate wrestling. McCoy’s 150 wins at Penn State are second best in program history. He won 131 of 132 bouts from his sophomore to his senior season, recording 11 falls, 12 major decisions and four technical falls.

“Kerry was one of the most determined wrestlers I have ever coached,” said former Penn State head coach John Fritz in an interview for a Penn State wrestling site. “He had a great ability to learn from each experience, whether it was a win or a loss. He constantly improved because of his ability to look ahead and stay focused on his goal.”

It’s that laser focus that would ultimately lead McCoy back to working toward his ultimate goal of competing against the best wrestlers in the world.

After three years of elite post-collegiate wrestling, McCoy won the 2000 U.S National Championship, again beating Neal. The victory awarded him one big prize: A plane ticket to Sydney, Australia.

Kerry McCoy was headed to the Olympics.

Artur Taymazov was born on July 20, 1979 in Nogir, North Ossetia, then part of the Soviet Union. He was the third born of four Taymazov brothers, each of whom gravitated to the world of sports.

Artur’s older brother, Timur, was a world-record breaking weight lifter who claimed a silver medal at the 1992 Olympics in Barcelona.

If the Taymazov brothers had to be summed up in one word, it would no doubt be the word strong.

Artur was just 20 years old when he qualified for Uzbekistan’s 2000 Olympic wrestling team.

Taymazov obliterated the competition in his two pool matches at the Sydney Games, allowing no points to the pair of wrestlers he faced in Pool 4 of the 130 kg tournament.

Meanwhile, in Pool 3, McCoy was having just as much success, shutting out both Rajab Ashabaliyev of Azerbaijan and Merabi Valiyev of the Ukraine, whom he needed overtime to defeat, to advance to the knockout round. From there, one win would send McCoy to the medal round.

All that stood in his way was Taymazov, a wrestler five years younger than him from a world away.

Taymazov was a relative newcomer to international wrestling when he arrived in Sydney.

While McCoy was not exactly a veteran to the world stage, he at least had the 1998 world championships, where he placed fourth, under his belt. Taymazov had not yet represented his country in a world championship tournament.

The knockout round pits six wrestlers in brackets, with two getting automatic byes from the pool matches to the medal round. Lose once and the chance to hang an Olympic medal around your neck is gone for four more years.

McCoy’s knockout round match against Taymazov was equal parts thrilling and controversial.

A look back at the final score of the match reveals Taymazov won 11-9.

It’s a score that has never sit well with McCoy and other U.S. Wrestling officials.

It’s also a different score than the one on the board at the time the match ended. The referees initially scored the match 8-7 in favor of Taymazov.

McCoy had come just short of a comeback from an 8-3 deficit after one period.

Or did he?

The United States team felt McCoy was denied two points he earned early in the match that would have tilted the outcome in his favor.

“We’re going to protest to see if we can get two more points,” U.S. coach Greg Strobel told the Associated Press moments after the match ended. “Kerry got a takedown, gut-wrench, then turned him in that early flurry and we think he should’ve gotten a couple more points.”

The protest led to an immediate videotape review of the match.

There was just one major problem.

In between the first and second period, ringside officials had reviewed tape of the first three minutes of the match.

When they were finished, they neglected to fast forward to the end of the period. When they began to record the second period, they erased the first.

Somewhat reluctantly, international wrestling officials agreed to review a tape of the match that was shot by the U.S. team doctor.

McCoy stood on pins and needles alongside his mother and younger sister, Christine, in a breezeway under the stands, where he awaited the outcome of the review.

The officials agreed, McCoy had in fact earned the two points he was never awarded. But officials said they also found three more points that should have gone Taymazov’s way. The Uzbek grappler would go on to win the silver medal, falling to Russian David Musulbes in the finals.

McCoy and his family were devastated.

“You know, I haven’t done any shopping for souvenirs yet,” Ms. Cisco told Newsday on the day of the match, “and now I’m not sure I want to.”

Ms. Cisco wasn’t the only member of her family to leave Sydney empty-handed. McCoy, who placed fifth in his weight class at the Olympics, headed home without the medal he still believes he could have won.

“It still stings because I thought I was the guy,” he said. “I had a great chance to win a gold medal.

“I’m proud of what I’ve done and all I’ve accomplished, which makes me who I am today. But that [loss] will be with me for the rest of my life.”

MARIO TAMA/AFP/GETTY IMAGES | Kerry McCoy following his victory over Ukraine's Merabi Valiyev in a 130 kg match in the World Cup of Freestyle Wrestling at the Patriot Center at George Mason University in February 2000, prior to his first Olympics appearance.

McCoy would continue to compete internationally for the next several years. He would win the U.S. national title four more times between 2001 and 2004. In 2001 he placed fourth at the World Championships, improving on his fifth place finish at the Olympics. In 2003, he’d win the gold medal at the Pan-American games.

Also that year, McCoy would wrestle his way into the 120 kg finals at the world championships.

He would face a familiar foe for a chance at world gold: Artur Taymazov.

As fast and furious as their Olympics match was, a video of the 2003 World Final reveals a much slower tempo. For the first 20 seconds of the match, neither McCoy nor Taymazov gains an advantage over the other. The two circle the mat in an upright position, as neither one of them makes an aggressive move.

Another eight seconds passes before Taymazov finally drops to his right knee and wraps both of his arms around McCoy’s left leg. As he begins to lift up, McCoy drops his right leg to the mat in a desperate attempt to avoid the inevitable take down. He has no such luck as Taymazov forces him to the mat and falls on top of him.

It was only one point, but it would prove to be big.

The two heavyweights would grapple to a stalemate for the next five minutes of the match, before McCoy finally found a breakthrough.

Taymazov again tried to be the aggressor as he dropped to both knees and lunged to McCoy’s right. This time, the American was able to maintain his balance and he quickly took control of the action, spinning on top of Taymazov and dropping him to the mat for an escape that evened up the score at 1-1 just seven seconds before the end of regulation.

But for as slow-moving as the first two periods were, Taymazov wasted little time claiming victory in sudden death overtime with a two-point take down just 11 seconds in.

Artur Taymazov, who McCoy now calls with a laugh his arch-nemesis, was world champion. He would go on to claim the gold medal in the Athens Olympics of 2004 and in Beijing in 2008.

McCoy wrestled in one more Olympics in 2004, but a loss to Marid Mutalimov of Kazakhstan kept him out of the knockout round. He finished in seventh place.

Soon after, McCoy hung up his international wrestling shoes as a two-time Olympian, gold medal winner in the 2003 Pan-Am Games, silver medalist in the 2003 World Championships and a five-time U.S. Champion.

McCoy was recently speaking with a group of youngsters when the topic shifted to the age-old question of what someone does with themselves when it’s time to enter the real world.

“I kind of cheated,” McCoy said. “I graduated and then when I was done competing, I started coaching.

“I’ve never had to leave the athletic field.”

He’s currently the head coach at the University of Maryland, where he has guided the Terps to three straight top-20 finishes at the NCAA Championships, two ACC titles, while twice being named ACC Coach of the Year. He has also coached six Terps to All-America status, a title he earned three times himself.

Prior to coaching at Maryland, McCoy coached the Stanford wrestling team for three seasons.

He also served as an assistant coach for Team USA at the 2008 Beijing games.

It’s been a great life in wrestling for McCoy. He can say with the utmost sincerity that he’s beaten many of the best wrestlers in the world. And when he’s lost, it’s been only to the best of the best.

These days, McCoy has no problems with Longwood’s decision to not offer a junior high basketball team when he was in seventh grade.

Wrestling is his true passion.

It may not have turned out to be the sport he once thought it was, but it’s led to a life he wouldn’t trade with anyone.

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08/13/11 7:57am
08/13/2011 7:57 AM

What began as a traveling museum has transformed into a permanent home filled with exhibits to commemorate the greatest athletes in Suffolk County’s history.

JOE WERKMEISTER FILE PHOTO | Ed Morris serves as executive director for the Suffolk Sports Hall of Fame.

The Suffolk Sports Hall of Fame, which first began inducting some of its more than 200 honorees in 1990, opened its Patchogue museum doors to the public for the first time in October 2008. Additional renovations are currently underway in the museum, a never-ending process of updating and expanding whenever funds become available. Ed Morris, the executive director of the Hall of Fame, said he expects the most recent work to be completed within the next two months, at which point the museum will be opened back up to the public. The Hall of Fame currently hosts field trips by appointment.

Among the updates will be new computer systems and a feature to the Hall’s Wall of Fame that greets visitors upon first entering the building. The Wall lists all the names of inductees and a visitor can dial up a name to hear a brief bio narrated by David Weiss of WALK-FM.

“Now there are four different monitors and you will see live action video on that inductee,” Morris said.

The Hall also produced a new video with money received from a grant from the Suffolk District Attorney’s Office to show kids in third to sixth grade. The video, called “Bullying and Violence in our Schools Today” contains advice from several of the Hall’s most notable athletes, including Buddy Harrelson and Marty Lyons.

Students will watch the video in the Hall’s 30-seat theater at the beginning of field trips.

“It’s not your typical generic government produced video you would get on drugs,” Morris said.

The Hall is also producing a video geared toward senior citizens, that features tips on exercising, preventing hip injuries and safety issues like protecting your home when on vacation.

Morris said the Hall donates tickets to senior citizen organizations throughout the county so they can tour the museum.

The Hall is currently accepting nominations for its next class of inductees. Eight athletes in the 20 Greatest series are members of the Hall of Fame.

The nomination period begins June 1 and ends Sept. 15. Nomination forms are available online as well as in Port Jeff Sporting Goods.

The Hall of Fame moved into its current home on South Ocean Avenue in 2000. It took a lot of renovation of the former North Fork Bank just to get the office space set up before the museum could be built.

The museum has been opened sparingly to the public on a regular basis and Morris hopes that will soon change. He said the goal is to open on a full-time basis and hire one or two staff members who can assist in tours.

As is always the case, it depends on money. The Hall relies on donations to sustain itself. And without those donations, it becomes harder and harder to stay updated and keep the museum open.

“It takes time,” Morris said. “We’re getting there little by little.”

Morris said he understands some people are frustrated when they stop by the museum at 1 p.m. on a Thursday afternoon and the building is closed. At this point, there’s not much they can do, he said.

“We’re very proud of [the museum],” he said, “but we need to show it off more.”

The Hall doesn’t just honor athletes. There are four major categories: professional athletes, amateur athletes, coaches and administrative, which includes people like sportswriters or former executive directors of Section XI.

For more information on the Suffolk Sports Hall of Fame, to nominate someone or to donate money, visit www.suffolksportshof.com.

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08/13/11 7:56am

COURTESY PHOTO | At 5-foot-1, gymnast JoAnna Judge is the shorest athlete on out list of the 20 Greatest Athletes in area history. That's just one of the fun facts we've uncovered ifor this by the numbers look at the 20 Greatest Athletes series.

After a one-day hiatus, the 20 Greatest Athletes in area history resumes with the Top 5 beginning Sunday.

Here are some fun facts we’ve come up with for the series. A close look at the numbers will give you some hints of what’s to come.

3 — Number of athletes on the list who have competed in the Olympics. That’s also the number of athletes on the list who are still competing.

2 — The total number of Olympic medals won by the 20 Greatest Athletes.

4 — Number of athletes who attended Riverhead High School, the most from any one school on the list. Four is also the number of former NFL players who cracked the list.

11 — The total number of high schools represented on the list, including two out-of-state private schools attended by local athletes.

23 — Total number of athletes on the list, the result of three ties.

7 — The number of female athletes who cracked the list.

14 — The number of sports represented on the list

5-1 — The height of Mount Sinai gymnast JoAnna Judge, the shortest athlete on our list.

283 — The NFL playing weight of Calverton native Scott Mersereau, the largest of the 20 greatest.

1911 — The year the oldest person on our list was born.

21 — The age of Ryan Creighton, the youngest person on our list.

6— The number of athletes on our list who won a national championship in college.

13 — The number of athletes who got involved in coaching after their playing careers ended.

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08/12/11 7:57am
08/12/2011 7:57 AM

THOM TOUW PHOTO | Amanda Clark (right) and her crew, Sarah Lihan, at the European Championships in Helsinki last month.

Amanda Clark was still only a toddler when she received her first sailing lesson while on a boat with her parents, Dennis and Ellen. She stuck her hand in the water and let it drag along before her father told her to stop. She was slowing the boat down.

Since then, Amanda Clark has spent the better part of her life as a sailor, navigating waves and wind, and finding ways to propel her boat through the water as swiftly as possible.

As Ellen Clark recalled, her precocious daughter always seemed to be a quick study. “I remember saying, ‘This kid at the age of 5 could go off and live on her own right now,’ ” she said.

Amanda Clark, a lifelong Shelter Island resident, was a sailing prodigy. At the age of 6, she started sailing in the Shelter Island Yacht Club’s junior program. At the age of 7 she was fearlessly working her way through the waters of Dering Harbor. She was 9 when she sailed in her first national event, 13 when she appeared in her first international regatta. By the time she had reached the tender age of 15, she had become the youngest female to make the United States sailing team in the Europe Dinghy class. Before she graduated from high school, Clark made an unsuccessful attempt to qualify for the 2000 Olympics in the Europe Dinghy, taking a respectable third in the trials.

That was the first of her four campaigns to qualify for the Olympics. She reached the 2008 Beijing Games in the 470 class, skippering a boat that was crewed by Sarah Chin, who went by the last name Mergenthaler at the time. They finished 12th among the 19-boat women’s fleet at the Qingdao Olympic Sailing Center.

Clark figures she has visited about 46 countries through sailing. She has stood on every continent except Antarctica.

After a one day hiatus, the 5 Greatest Athletes in area history will be unveiled beginning Sunday.

She has trained, coached or competed with the world’s top sailors and represented the United States in 16 world championship events.

And Clark’s sailing life continues. The 29-year-old Clark and her new crew, Sarah Lihan, are bidding to win a place in the 2012 Olympics in London.

Sailing was a good fit for Clark from the start. Perhaps her future was laid out a few years before she was born when her parents joined the Shelter Island Yacht Club and got a sailboat. The Clarks’ two oldest children, Greg and Becky, also went though the yacht club’s junior program and were good sailors in their own right. “Amanda, though, was a little different,” said Ellen Clark. “She took the tiller of one of our boats when she was 4, and she could sail it perfectly.”

As a youngster, with her love of the water and her talent, Amanda Clark showed that she had a bright future in sailing. She said she started training harder when she was 13, after noticing that less talented sailors in the single-handed Optimist class were beating her because they were training harder. She raised the bar, and her parents helped.

“We did everything in our power to get her around the world and the best coaches that we could afford,” said Ellen Clark.

Amanda Clark was 14 when she earned a silver medal in the Optimist European Championships. She made a breakthrough at the age of 16 when she made it to the ISAF Youth World Championship. “It helped me realize that I was one of the best female sailors in the country,” she said. She was also the top female finisher in both the North and South American Championships that year.

Clark won the junior national championship in the Laser Radial class in 1998 and 2000. She became a two-time Intercollegiate Sailing Association all-American at Connecticut College. In 2001 she won the ICSA single-handed North American championship while at Connecticut College.

Her college coach, Jeff Bresnahan, was quoted on a college website as saying: “Amanda is the hardest working person I know. She is dedicated in every part of her life.”

During her Optimist days, Clark found herself sailing against another boat that, like her own, had a blue hull. The two blue hulls stood out among the fleets of mostly white boats. The other blue boat belonged to Chin. “We kind of had a competitive, healthy rivalry,” said Chin.

In 2002, the two rivals became teammates on the same 470 boat, with Clark skippering and Chin the crew. The chemistry was just right. Chin recalls times in a race when she knew Clark would tack before Clark did just that. It was the start of a long and successful partnership that brought them to the Olympics. They were ranked No. 1 on the United States sailing team from 2005 to 2008.

Like Clark, Chin has a long history in sailing. Chin, who made an unsuccessful Olympic bid in the Europe Dinghy in 2000, once asked when was the first time she was on a boat. Her mother told her, “You wouldn’t know because you were in a bassinet at four months [of age] on a boat” with her grandfather.

Clark and Chin made a good team. They brought their world ranking from 47th in 2005 to fifth in 2007.

Perhaps one reason they did so well is because they share similar personalities. Neither of them like to lose.

“Amanda is the only person I have ever met who has matched my competitiveness,” said Chin, who lives in Long Beach Island, N.J. “She’s really focused. She’s really driven.”

Together, they accomplished a lot. In the trials for the 2004 Olympics in Athens, they finished an agonizing second.

THOM TOUW PHOTO | Amanda Clark (right) and her current crew, Sarah Lihan, at the European Championships in Helsinki last month.

Only the winning boat qualifies for the Olympics, so the two had to settle for being the first alternates after finishing only three seconds behind Katie McDowell and Isabelle Kinsolving, who went on to take fifth place in Athens.

It was an emotional blow for Clark and Chin.

“Even though you’re second best in the country, you’re like, ‘That was great, but it wasn’t good enough,’ ” Chin said. “We gave it all we had. We put our lives in it for four years and we’re second.”

That disappointment was turned into a positive, though, fueling their run for the 2008 Olympics in China.

“It made us hungrier,” Chin said. “We never really stopped training after the Athens trials. By the time the 2008 trials came around for Beijing, we were the most experienced, the most prepared.”

And, as it turned out, the most qualified.

On one of the most memorable days either of them have experienced, they took first place in the trials in 2007, which for the first time included a mixed fleet of men and women.

Chin recalled the image of a triumphant fist pump at the end. “It gives me goose bumps thinking about it,” she said. “It was the most amazing feeling, just to know that you did it.”

An even more amazing sensation awaited them in Beijing.

Some athletes choose to skip the Olympics opening ceremony, opting to get a good night of rest instead, but Clark and Chin wanted to take it all in.

“We chose to do it because we thought that’s an experience not to be missed,” Chin said. “Walking into an opening ceremony for the Olympics is something special.”

Clark’s parents nearly missed making it to the opening ceremony. The tickets they had purchased turned out to be the product of a ticket scam. Nevertheless, they managed to obtain opening ceremony passes and were in the crowd that hot, humid night at the Beijing National Stadium, which is also known as the Bird’s Nest. They got to see their daughter among the other Olympians, waving to the crowd.

Even three years later, the memory of that wonderful night almost brings Ellen Clark to tears. “It was as special as when my firstborn was born,” she said. “It was just unbelievable, unbelievable.”

It was a remarkable night for Amanda Clark. She got to shake President Bush’s hand. She got to have her picture taken with NBA star Kobe Bryant.

Amanda Clark remembers athletes jockeying for position to get in front of television cameras as they marched around the stadium. She figures she got about two and a half seconds of air time.

“That was a huge milestone in my career, for sure,” she said. “It was everything I ever wanted from my first Olympic experience.”

In a U.S. Sailing website posting, Clark wrote: “The most rewarding part so far has been qualifying for the Olympic Team, and more importantly, inspiring others to believe in something. The word ‘Olympics’ puts a smile on almost every face I see; it is nice to be part of that.”

Of course, the one missing item is an Olympics medal. That is something Clark hopes to rectify next year when the Olympics go to England. If she does win a medal, it will be with a new teammate, though.

The Clark/Chin team dissolved in February when Chin made the difficult decision to retire, ending a nine-year run together. “That is a pretty remarkable time for a team to stay together,” said Chin.

The two had grown so close that Chin said she regards Clark as a sister. To this day, Chin said her retirement from competitive sailing is a subject she can barely talk about. “It was absolutely probably the hardest thing I’ve done in my life, to walk away from something you love, but as an athlete, you have to realize you’re not 100-percent there any more,” she said.

Clark, who had only one crew member before Chin, Duffy Markham, reportedly took the news well. She went about finding a new crew.

As the skipper, it is Clark’s duty to steer the boat. She is responsible for the speed and how the boat moves through the water. She makes most of the tactical calls.

“The crew is the powerhouse,” Clark said. “Without the crew, I would be completely useless. The crew is the one that balances the boat.”

The 470 boat is about 15-feet long, with a main mast, a jib and a spinnaker. On a breezy day, it can sail as fast as 17 knots, about 20 miles per hour.

Clark held a week of tryouts in search of a new crew, and found one: Sarah Lihan of Fort Lauderdale, Fla. The announcement was made on Feb. 21.

THOM TOUW PHOTO | Amanda Clark (right) and her new crew, Sarah Lihan, have already experienced a great deal of success together on the water. The duo is aiming for the 2012 Olympic games in London.

The “new Sarah” had credentials of her own. Lihan was a serious sailor in the Laser Radial class, with a No. 2 national ranking. She has two Olympic trials under her belt. In college, she was an all-American her senior year as a skipper for Yale in 2009-10, and a national champion in 2009.

This was a major change for Lihan, one that she may very well not have made if it wasn’t an opportunity for her to sail with Clark.

“It was all about Amanda,” Lihan said. “I don’t think I would have switched if it had been anyone else.”

Still, it was a big adjustment for the 6-foot-1 Lihan to move to a 470 boat. “I had never crewed a boat before so it was big for me not to be holding the tiller,” she said. “It was almost like switching sports entirely.”

So far, so good. Both sailors say things are coming together well for Team Go Sail. They have competed in four regattas so far.

The first half of the Olympic team trials for next year’s Olympics was the Skandia Sail for Gold Regatta that was held in Dorset, England, in early June. Clark and Lihan finished 11th overall. More importantly, they stayed close to the only American team in front of them, Erin Maxwell and Isabelle K. Farrar, who were eighth. Only the top American team will get to sail for the United States in the Olympics next summer.

The second half of qualifying will be held in Perth, Australia, in December, and the Team Go Sail twosome sounds confident about their chances of making it to London next year.

“It’s actually exactly where we want to be,” Clark said. “As a team, we’re just moving forward at an incredible pace, becoming stronger and stronger.”

An Olympic qualifying campaign is a major undertaking. For the sailors themselves, it amounts to a full-time job.

Aside from the training (Clark said that on a breezy day on the water, she can burn off between 3,000 and 4,000 calories), there is also tiring work to be done on the boat itself. And then there is the staggering cost of the endeavor.

An Olympic bid can cost a sailing team around $500,000. “There are definitely teams spending over that,” said Clark.

Clark said 60 percent of Team Go Sail’s budget is provided by U.S. Sailing Team alphagraphics, a title sponsor.

It’s a big commitment and a lot of work, but for someone like Clark with sailing in her blood, it’s a good life.

So, what is it about Amanda Clark that makes her stand apart from many other sailors?

“I think it’s her determination,” Chin said. “It’s something you can’t teach. You can’t make somebody want it more. With Amanda, you never had to.”

Ellen Clark knows all about her daughter’s focus. “Driven would probably be the first word to come to mind,” she said.

Whether it be a world championship regatta or a Wednesday night sailing race from Greenport to New Suffolk, Amanda Clark is all business when she is on the water.

“Amanda is a perfectionist, but she doesn’t go off the deep end about it,” Ellen Clark said. “She’s very practical. There’s no doubt about it, she has to do it right.”

Amanda Clark has worked for her mother’s business, Clark Executive Search, Inc., as an executive recruiter, finding scientists and doctors for pharmaceutical and biotechnology companies.

“She’s the best darn employee I ever had,” Ellen Clark said. “She dedicates and throws herself into whatever work she does.”

Amanda Clark, who also does some coaching in addition to her full-time sailing, is married to a fellow sailor, Greg Rissen, who heads the sailing program as part of his job as the director of a local camp on Shelter Island.

Clark still loves the competitive sailing life.

“I love to travel,” she said. “I love to compete, and no two races are ever the same. Sometimes it goes your way, and that’s great, and sometimes it doesn’t go your way.”

Clark still has enthusiasm for her sport. Lihan sees it in the wide-eyed look that Clark has when she is on the water.

“She still has that sparkle, and I think that’s what’s really going to pull through for us,” Lihan said. “There is nowhere else in the world she would rather be.”

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08/12/11 7:56am

COURTESY PHOTO | Larry Suter is an America's Cup champion who calls the North Fork home.

Shelter Island sailor Amanda Clark, who competed in the 2008 Olympic Games in China, isn’t the only standout athlete to come from eastern Long Island waters. That really shouldn’t come as a surprise, considering the area’s proximity to the water and the various venues available.

Peconic Bay, for one, is seen as an ideal site for regattas and training because it offers little tidal action, deep water, a good breeze and light boating traffic. And then, of course, there’s the outstanding scenery.

“We have beautiful wind, beautiful clean waters,” Clark said. “An extremely beautiful place.”

Larry Suter, 64, of Mattituck may be the most accomplished sailor that the North Fork has produced. A former member of the United States sailing team, Suter was 22 years old when he was a starboard tailor on Intrepid while she defended the America’s Cup against the Australian boat Gretel 11 off Northport, R.I.

Following that experience, Suter worked as a sailmaker for a while to better understand setting up sails. He then sailed in various regattas in Europe.

Sailing in the 470 class, Suter took 12th in the Olympic trials one year. He also has a North American championship to his credit.

Suter showed an ability to adapt and compete in various classes. In 1999, in only his second Sunfish regatta in two years, he took second place in the North American Championships. Over his career, Suter has won eastern Long Island championships in Sailfish, Sunfish and Comet class boats. He was a runner-up in a Comet International Class championship one year. In 1992, Suter and Nick Scandone won the U.S. Sailing Multihull Championship. Then, in 1998, he teamed up with Jon Farrar to win the Miami Olympic Classes Regatta.

One of Suter’s thrills came in 2005 when he was a member of a 15-person crew that finished in first place in the International Sailing Federation (ISAF) 12-Meter World Championships in Newport, R.I. “Winning a world championship is definitely a major thing,” Suter said. “There were high fives up and down the boat.”

But what made it special was the fact that Suter was aboard Courageous, the same boat that won the America’s Cup in 1974 and 1977 (the year that media mogul Ted Turner sailed it). It was one of many historic boats that competed in that regatta.

“These are boats that are history,” Suter said. “People aren’t timeless; boats are timeless. These are boats that won America’s Cup.”

For all his sailing exploits, though, Suter may be even better known as an Olympic coach. He found satisfaction in coaching.

“It’s like baking a pie or putting a meal in the oven and watching it come out right,” he said. “Hopefully it comes out right.”

In 1999, Suter coached in the world championships in Melbourne, Australia, in what he called at the time the largest regatta in the history of the world. Some 2,500 sailors from 87 nations competed. Both of the sailors Suter coached did well. Morgan Reeser finished 11th in the 470, and Linda Wennerstrom was 17th in Europe dinghy. They were both the top American sailors in their class.

Suter coached Reeser and his crew, Kevin Burnham, who took eighth place in the 1996 Olympic Games in Atlanta.
Suter is also a former coach of Amanda Clark’s. She later went on to sail a 470 in the 2008 Olympics in Beijing, finishing 12th with her crew, Sarah Mergenthaler.

Others have excelled as well. Jay Mills, a Greenport native, was a standout sailor for both his Hobart and William Smith Colleges team in upstate New York and The Hotchkiss School, the private high school he attended in Lakeville, Conn.

Mills was the team MVP and an all-American honorable mention in his senior year for Hobart and Williams Smith Colleges in 2008.

Before going into college, though, Mills had already made a name for himself. In his senior year in high school, he finished fourth in the Single-Handed High School National Sailing Championship in St. Petersburg, Fla.

Later that year, Hotchkiss, as one of the top two high school teams in the United States, received an invitation to compete in the British Schools Dinghy Racing Association International finals at the West Kirby Sailing Club in England. Hotchkiss finished second to Point Loma (Calif.), the same team that Hotchkiss was runner-up to in the United States 420 Class national championships in May.

“I was pretty bummed,” Mills said afterward. “Of all the teams, they’re the team I wanted to beat.”

Joe Townsend, a former Southold Town Board member, had a rowing career in which he rowed for the national team in the Pan American Games and at the United States Olympic Trials.

Townsend and Rob Buchanan, who was a part-time Greenport resident at the time, rowed with the Motley Rowing Club seven years ago, taking third place among 34 boats in the senior masters eight-man shell in the 40th Head of the Charles in Boston, one of the largest rowing competitions in the nation. Motley completed the two-and-a-half mile race in 12 minutes 23.891 seconds, finishing behind the Leander Boat Club (12:16.115) and the Grosse Ile Rowing Club (12:17.750). At the same time, Motley finished ahead of the fourth-place 1980 Rowing Club, which included members of the 1980 United States Olympic Team.

Buchanan expressed the great respect he held for the Motley Rowing Club. “These guys are kind of like the Mount Rushmore of the rowing world,” he said. “They’re like royalty.”

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08/11/11 7:57am
08/11/2011 7:57 AM

As a running joke, Mitch Wolman and some of his close friends who grew up in Miller Place will test their knowledge of one another with trivia.

GEORGE ROSE/GETTY IMAGES PHOTO | Miller Place graduate Rick Donnelly was a two-time All-Pro punter in the NFL with the Atlanta Falcons.

GEORGE ROSE/GETTY IMAGES PHOTO | Miller Place graduate Rick Donnelly was a two-time All-Pro punter in the NFL with the Atlanta Falcons.

A recent question came up about their friend Rick Donnelly: Which team from the United States Football League drafted him?

The answer: The San Antonio Gunslingers in 1985, in the 14th round, 192nd overall.

It would take a close friend to effortlessly roll that fact off the tongue. Donnelly never did play for the Gunslingers in the now defunct league that operated in the shadow of a much more notable one from 1983-87.

No, Donnelly had his sights set much higher.

He eschewed the invitation to San Antonio and instead packed his bags for New England.

A tryout with the NFL’s Patriots awaited.

Years after his career as a professional football player ended, Rick Donnelly, now 49, could still be spotted in the parks or schools around his Wyoming home with a bag of footballs. He wouldn’t need a receiver to throw to or a blocker to run behind. He’d simply punt. Just as he did as a kid back on Long Island decades earlier, a serene setting like a basketball player swishing baskets in the driveway as the sun sets on a summer night.

“Ever since I can remember I’ve loved to punt and any chance I get, I do it,” Donnelly told the Wyoming Tribune Eagle in 2006.

Punter may not be the most glamorous position on the football field, but Donnelly found his calling in it at an early age and he went on to become a two-time All-Pro in the NFL with the Atlanta Falcons. He grew up playing the more prestigious quarterback position throughout his youth, but it was always the play on fourth down, when a defeated group of offensive players lowered their heads and shrugged off to the sideline that kept Donnelly most interested.

You would almost half-expect him to intentionally miss a receiver on third down just to get the chance to punt.

Even when he watches NFL games now, he mostly looks forward to a team punting. The hard hits? Electrifying runs? Deep sideline passes? That’s not his style.

Donnelly grew up in the same neighborhood as Buddy Read, an outstanding athlete in his own right at Miller Place High School. Read, who now teaches and coaches at Mount Sinai, was three years older than Donnelly. With a strong leg of his own ­— Read was an All-County soccer player in 1976 — he would face off against Donnelly in punting contests out in front of their houses. The street featured plenty of tree branches that made precision all the more vital.

“We had our own game and we had our own rules,” Read said. “We would literally play for a few hours at a time uninterrupted just going at it. And it was fun. There wasn’t anything better than that.”

Read played football in junior high and was the team’s punter, but never continued with the sport, instead focusing more on tennis and basketball.

Donnelly never had great interest in watching sports as a kid, but he found he was awfully good at playing them. He came up in the Miller Place district during the infancy of the school and football program. In 1973 the school featured a junior high and junior varsity team for the first time. The following season began the varsity program with a night game at Bishop-McGann Mercy.

At the same time in the junior high, Rick Donnelly and his friend Mitch Wolman were getting their first crack at playing organized football together as seventh-graders. Wolman, who teaches at Mount Sinai now, came up playing center and linebacker. He’d develop a close friendship with Donnelly, whose hands he’d snap the ball into time after time over the years.

“There was a whole group of us that went through the system together,” Wolman said.

By the time Donnelly began playing any real organized football with coaches, he had already developed his punting skills.

1989 Topps Trading Card

“Before he was involved in any real organized football he would spend hours in the street kicking the ball from one end to the other, back and forth, back and forth,” Wolman said. “By the time he started in seventh grade with us, it was obvious he was a real, real good athlete. Great hand-eye coordination. He could kick the hell out of the ball.”

Donnelly came up in the program behind a superb quarterback by the name of Jim Margraff, who graduated in 1978 when Donnelly was a sophomore. Margraff went on to quarterback at Johns Hopkins University, where he still holds the school record for career touchdown passes (50) and pass attempts (1,126). His 6,669 career passing yards is second in Hopkins history, having just been broken last season by Hewitt Tomlin. Margraff has spent 21 years coaching the Hopkins football team, leading the program to its most successful stretch in its history.

Even with Margraff’s talent at quarterback, the Panthers struggled in his seasons as the program was still in its early stages.

By the start of his senior season in 1979, Donnelly was officially the starting quarterback, place kicker and punter. The Panthers had yet to win more than two games in any season, but they had gotten much closer the previous year. Four of their losses in 1978 came by six or fewer points.

The ’78 season marked the end of coaching for Roy Reese, the program’s first coach. Sal Passamano, a science teacher, became head coach after serving as the assistant under Reese the previous season.

One thing he knew he didn’t have to worry about was the kicking game with Donnelly. “We saw how he kicked and basically left him alone,” Passamano said. He tells the story of when Donnelly would kick extra points through the goalposts sitting in the north end zone, the balls sometimes ended up in the parking lot, some 60 yards away from where he kicked it.

“Rick was such a devastating kicker as an offensive weapon and a defensive weapon,” Passamano said. “If you got stuck on your 20-yard line, he’d kick the ball down to the other team’s 20.”

His ability to kick field goals gave the Panthers an added threat few teams had. Anything inside 35 yards was basically automatic for Donnelly. He’d set the school record of 44 yards, which was eventually broken when Michael Pollina booted a 46-yarder in 1987.

Wolman and another close friend, Marty Steiger, both said they remember him kicking field goals of over 50 yards. More so than a punter, people viewed Donnelly as an outstanding field goal kicker.

“At one point his senior year he was kicking field goals like crazy,” said Steiger, who also played football, but was better known for wrestling, the sport he played in college.

The Miller Place football team posted a 6-2 record in ’79, tying for the league title.

Three years before Donnelly’s senior season, the Panthers had their first All-County baseball player in Andy Stafford. He ended up going to the University of Wyoming on a baseball scholarship.

UNIVERSITY OF WYOMING ATHLETICS PHOTO | As a senior at Wyoming Donnelly had one of the best seasons kicking in school history.

UNIVERSITY OF WYOMING ATHLETICS PHOTO | As a senior at Wyoming Donnelly had one of the best seasons kicking in school history.

Don Pranzo, the baseball coach at the time, figured he’d try the connection again when Donnelly began his senior year. He called the coach at Wyoming and told him he had another good ballplayer. Pranzo happened to mention how Donnelly was a kicker and could boot 50-yard field goals.

The coach shot back: At sea level!?

The University of Wyoming in Cheyenne rests more than 6,000 feet above sea level. The thin air allows a ball to glide much farther than at a low elevation.

The baseball coach quickly passed word along to the football coach.

Donnelly was a superb baseball player, leading the Panthers with a 10-1 record to earn All-County honors as a senior. Pranzo said Donnelly couldn’t bend his wrist back enough to create the snapping motion to throw many breaking pitches. So he taught him to throw a knuckle-curve, which he mastered.

“He was unhittable in our league,” said Pranzo, who now coaches badminton at Miller Place.

His baseball career, however, was short lived. His future was in kicking.

The power of his right leg garnered Donnelly interest from powers like Penn State and Syracuse. He opted to head west.

“I just wanted to see the West,” Donnelly told Chris Mortensen of The Atlanta Constitution in 1986. “And that was as far west as I was being offered a scholarship.”

At Wyoming he would be a place kicker and punter, but had to patiently wait his turn behind Jack Weil, who led the NCAA with an average of 45.8 yards per punt. As a senior with his first opportunity to be the full-time starter, he was perfect on extra points, converting all 30 attempts. He became the first kicker in school history with a perfect season. He also set the school record for average punting yards. He totaled 2,990 yards over 63 punts, a 47.5 average. Over his career from 1981-84 he had the highest yards per punt average (45.8) of anyone in Wyoming history. The NCAA record set by fellow long Islander Todd Sauerbrun, who played at Ward Melville before attending West Virginia from 1991-94, is 46.3.

UNIVERSITY OF WYOMING ATHLETICS PHOTO | Rick Donnelly ended up back in Wyoming after his playing days in the NFL ended.

UNIVERSITY OF WYOMING ATHLETICS PHOTO | Rick Donnelly ended up back in Wyoming after his playing days in the NFL ended.

Donnelly posted a superb senior season even after undergoing surgery to repair a ruptured disc in his back in Jan. 1983. He had to be red-shirted and missed the entire season.

When Donnelly graduated from Wyoming with an administration of justice degree in 1985, his chances of getting drafted into the NFL were slim. For starters, teams generally aren’t jumping to draft punters, although by then it wasn’t a foreign idea. In 1973 Ray Guy was the 23rd overall pick by the Oakland Raiders. He still remains the only punter ever taken in the first round (he did also become a third-string quarterback).

But also lowering Donnelly’s stock was the fact he played in Wyoming. Teams attributed his success in college to the high altitude. But as Donnelly would later say, it wasn’t always the easiest kicking conditions.

“What people don’t realize about kicking at Wyoming is the wind and the bad weather you kick in a lot of the time,” he told the Los Angeles Times in 1985. “A lot of kickers would come in and look forward to punting in Wyoming. Then they’d see what the wind was doing at that stadium and say, `Oh, no.’”

Donnelly’s first NFL opportunity came in training camp with the Patriots in ’85. He went into camp going up against Rich Camarillo, a young punter who only two years earlier made the Pro Bowl. Teams only keep one punter, so for Donnelly to earn a spot, he needed to unseat Camarillo.

It didn’t happen. The Patriots, content with their All-Pro veteran, released Donnelly midway through training camp.

The Falcons jumped at the chance to pick him up. A similar situation to New England, the Falcons had an established punter in Ralph Giacamarro. Soon after Donnelly came in, the Falcons released Giacamarro.

The move came so quick, many observers were skeptical.

“From the first day we saw this guy, we knew he had the ability,” Falcons’ coach Dan Henning said in The Atlanta Constitution. “He had a great tryout with us. He punted long, he had good hang time and he had eight of 10 kicks inside the 20. And the other guy [Giacamarro] had done a good job for us, but he was in a slump, much like a baseball hitter gets into a slump.”

Donnelly had a strong rookie season, finishing third in the NFL in punting average. He played the first 11 games before a torn ligament in his right knee hastily ended his season.

His rookie campaign had plenty of ups and downs. In a November game against Philadelphia, Donnelly soared a perfect punt where the ball bounced out of bounds at the 1-yard line. It was an astounding 68-yard punt, the second longest of his career. The game was in overtime and it seemed exactly what the Falcons needed to get the ball back for a chance to score.

Donnelly had done his part. But two plays later, the Eagles scored on a 99-yard pass to win the game 23-17.

In 1986 he played all 16 games and finished fourth in the NFL in punting average. He booted the longest punt of his career that year at 71 yards.

“I don’t know how you can put a value on it [field position],” Falcons coach Dan Henning said during the ’86 season. “It’s just a great advantage to force the opposing team to consistently go a long way in an effort to score. That’s the kind of value Rick gives us.”

By 1987 he had his first All-Pro season, finishing tops in the NFL in punting average with a career-best 44 yards per punt. In 1988 he tied the league-lead for most punts, attributable to playing on a 5-11 team. He earned All-Pro honors once again.

It would turn out to be his final season playing for the Falcons.

Before the start of training camp in 1989, he injured his back running a drill. Donnelly, then 27, was described at the time of having “degenerative disc disease,” which causes lower back pain. He tried to fight through it, but in September he had to undergo his second major surgery to his back, this time to fuse two vertebrae. He missed the entire ’89 season.

In 1990 he joined the Seattle Seahawks and played all 16 games. After three games in 1991, his back flared up again. He was placed on injured reserve in late September because of a bulging disc in his back near the vertebra that were fused in his previous surgery. That November he had to undergo a third surgery to his back and his NFL career was over.

Rick Donnelly settled back in Wyoming after his playing career ended with his wife Jackie, whom he met in college, and their three children. He spends a lot of time working with kids in the area who share his same passion for punting, a unique niche in America’s most popular sport.

Donnelly and his old punting buddy, Buddy Read, lost contact in the years during college and beyond. But later on as adults they did reconnect one day with a phone call, where they laughed at some of their memories of kicking around a ball on the street.

“We’ll carry that for the rest of our lives, the fun we had playing a silly game that we made up ourselves,” Read said.

The fact Donnelly made it all the way to the NFL still makes Read shake his head and smile.

“To me he was just a kid down the street,” he said. “If I saw Ricky again I’d kid him like, ‘C’mon! How’d you make it and not me?’”

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08/11/11 7:55am

NFL EUROPE COURTESY PHOTO | Longwood graduate Sha-Ron Edwards played with the Atlanta Falcons as a tailback during the preseason, but saw the bulk of his professional action playing in Europe.

All across America this fall thousands of boys will strap on shoulder pads and helmets as they begin a new season on the football field. They’ll dream of one day making it into the National Football League.

It’s a dream very few ever see come to fruition. As a handful of locals have found out over the years, simply reaching the NFL isn’t always the hardest part. It’s staying in the league that presents the greatest challenge.

The road to the NFL can vary greatly. Matt Simonton, 1994 Longwood graduate, rode the strength of his right leg into the NFL, where he had brief stints as a kicker with several teams during the preseason. He never made it into a regular season game.

As a senior Simonton played on one of the best Longwood teams ever, alongside quarterback Eric Brown and running back Jason Schuster, who won the Hansen Award as Suffolk’s top player. All eyes may have been on Schuster that season, but it was the guy kicking the extra points after Schuster’s touchdowns who ended up going the furthest in football.

Simonton, who was an All-County wrestler at Longwood as well, went on to play at Southern Illinois University from 1996-98. His 23 career field goals ranks seventh all-time in school history. In his first season in ’96 he kicked 13 field goals and was 35 out of 37 on extra points.

His 50-yard field goal against Winston-Salem in ’96 ranks as the fifth longest field goal in school history. The following season against Youngstown State he kicked a 47-yarder.

In the early 2000’s Simonton got picked up by several NFL teams, including the New York Giants and St. Louis Rams in 2001. He was signed by the Giants in April 2001 then released in late July. He got picked up by the Rams shortly after and didn’t make the final roster, getting cut in late August.

Simonton spent time in training camp with the Rams in 2002 and got an unexpected phone call from the Washington Redskins in 2003. He was in Atlantic City for a national lifeguard competition when the Redskins’ kicker, John Hall, suffered a slight groin pull a few days before an exhibition game, according to a Washington Post article. Then 26, Simonton left the lifeguard competition and joined the Redskins two days before a game against the Carolina Panthers.

He got one chance on a field goal and missed a 35-yard attempt. Hall’s injury was minimal and he soon after returned to be the team’s kicker. Hall ended up kicking 25 field goals for the Redskins that season, after his previous six seasons with the New York Jets.

Two years later Simonton, who teaches in the Longwood district, helped lead the lifeguards at Smith Point to a national title in Virginia Beach, Va. He won the men’s national sprint competition during the competition and was named to the U.S. national lifeguard team that competed internationally, according to a Newsday article.

Riverhead has produced its fair share of NFL prospects, including one player who played for McGann-Mercy. Joe Pipczynski Jr. grew up in Riverhead and played college football at The Citadel from 1979-82. He was an offensive tackle who earned All-Southern Conference honors in 1982 and was an honorable mention All-American. He won the Joe Missar Outstanding Offensive Lineman Award, given annually to the team’s top lineman.

After his college career ended, Pipczynski signed as a free agent with the Seattle Seahawks. After a brief stint with the Seahawks he returned home to coach at Mercy. In 1984 he signed with the Jets, but a career-ending injury derailed his pursuit of the NFL.

Another Riverheader played briefly with Seattle. James Hill played 10 games in 2000 with the Seahawks. A tight end, he was primarily a backup behind Christian Fauria and Itula Mili. Hill played college football at Abilene Christian University. In 1997 he was one of four players selected as the team’s Most Valuable Player.

In 1991 John Kacherski of Riverhead was a captain at Ohio State. Wearing No. 95 he played outside linebacker from 1987-91 with the Buckeyes. He was a starter his senior year.

Listed at 6-foot-2, 240 pounds, Kacherski joined the practice squad of the Denver Broncos to start the 1992 season.

In November of that season Kacherski received a call from the Broncos’ director of football operations, Lide Huggins.

“Whenever Lide calls a rookie, it usually isn’t all that good news,” Kacherski told the Denver Post afterward.

Huggins’ call was to say Denver coach Dan Reeves wanted to talk to Kacherski and let him know the coaches had been impressed with his pass-rushing ability and he was going to be activated, taking the spot of another player who was demoted to the practice squad. He came up to the Broncos as a special teams player.

The following season during training camp Kacherski was moved to inside linebacker to fill the void left by an injured player. But in early August Kacherski pulled his hamstring. By the end of the month, the Broncos released him, ending his NFL career.

Most recently in 2007, Longwood graduate Sha-Ron Edwards played with the Atlanta Falcons as a tailback during the preseason. A 1999 graduate, Edwards was a key member of the Lions’ first Long Island championship team in 1998. He played two seasons at Central Connecticut State before transferring to Illinois State where as a senior he rushed for 1,429 yards.

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08/10/11 7:57am
08/10/2011 7:57 AM

JOHN SANDHAUS/GETTY IMAGES | Scott Merserau was a longshot to make it to the NFL in his days at Riverhead High School and Southern Connecticut State University. He would go on to start seven seasons with the Jets.

There was Dennis Byrd this past January at the New York Jets’ hotel in Rhode Island on the eve of what head coach Rex Ryan called the franchise’s biggest game since Super Bowl III.

The former defensive lineman was there to tell his story. To show the current players on his former team that no challenge is insurmountable.

If anybody knows that to be true it’s Byrd, who on Nov. 29, 1992 broke his neck in a game against the Kansas City Chiefs. At the time of the injury, it was believed he might never walk again.

But come the following September, he was in street clothes at the Meadowlands for the team’s home opener, waving to the fans in the crowd.

The current Jets took Byrd’s message, which wide receiver Braylon Edwards called the greatest motivational speech he’d ever heard, to heart.

The next afternoon they stormed the field at Gillette Stadium in Foxboro, Mass. and upset the rival New England Patriots, 28-21.

Newspaper, television and radio reports came in for days about how Byrd’s speech gave the Jets all the inspiration they needed to defeat their sworn enemy.

Scott Merserau came in at No. 8 on our list of the 20 Greatest Athletes in area history. The final week of the countdown begins with No. 7 Thursday.

The story of how Dennis Byrd once broke his neck only to walk again became familiar to a whole new generation of young football fans.

But there’s one name people are less familiar with that’s also associated with the Dennis Byrd story. It’s that of a young man from Calverton who made the most of an NFL work stoppage to play his way onto his hometown team.

A nose tackle who built up his toughness spending summers working at a local farm, and then used that strength to later play seven seasons as a starting defensive lineman for the New York Jets.

This Riverhead High graduate was also pursuing Chiefs quarterback Dave Kreig when Byrd lowered his head and the two teammates collided.

This is the story of Scott Mersereau.

Scott Mersereau didn’t take the usual path to the NFL.

He didn’t spend his entire childhood at football camps and studying film. He was never that prototypical blue chip athlete.

When it came time to pick a college, he never got that flashy offer from Notre Dame or Ohio State.

NEWS-REVIEW FILE PHOTO | Scott Mersereau was a fifth round selection by the Los Angeles Rams in 1987. The team would cut him later that season, paving the way for a career with the hometown Jets.

Instead, Mersereau went to Division II Southern Connecticut State University after being impressed with a recruiting visit by former head coach Kevin Gilbride (now the offensive coordinator of the New York Giants) and the school’s current and longtime head coach Rich Cavanaugh.

Even Mersereau’s own mother never expected to see her son in an NFL uniform.

“I didn’t even think it was possible to go to the NFL from a Division II school,” said Janet Mersereau in a telephone interview this week.

But in his four years with the Owls, Mersereau was grooming himself for a career on the gridiron.

The News-Review reported that Mersereau was 6-foot-3, 220 pounds during his senior year at Riverhead High in 1982.

When he arrived at Southern Connecticut he realized he needed to bulk up to play at the college level. He cut out beer and sweets, ate fish and poultry, and he stuck to fat free milk. Most importantly, he hit the weight room with a vengeance.

By the time Mersereau reached his senior season in college he had gained more than 60 pounds.

Despite the massive bulkup, he could still run a 40-yard dash in 4.75 seconds. And he could now bench press 450 pounds.

While nose tackle is not exactly a position of great statistical measure, NFL scouts began to take notice of the All-New England defensive lineman’s physical skills.

The Los Angeles Rams were coming off a playoff season that saw their defense improve to the fifth best in the NFL in 1986. And while they still had some room to grow on the offensive side of the football, they opted to instead concentrate their draft day strategy on making their defense even stronger.

With each of their first five picks they gobbled up a defensive player, including Mersereau, who was selected in the fifth round, 136th overall.

With only one spot for a starter at defensive tackle in Los Angeles’ 3-4 system, it was clear very early on to Mersereau that he would not have a clear spot on the Rams roster.

He entered training camp as No. 3 on the nose tackle depth chart and he never moved up. Come late summer, Mersereau was no longer in the Rams’ plans.

At the same time much closer to home for Mersereau the New York Jets were searching for someone who could be their next nose tackle. Joe Klecko assumed the position when the Jets switched to a 3-4 defense in 1985 and led the team in tackles, while racking up 7 1/2 sacks in an All-Pro season.

But Klecko, who combined with fellow tackle Abdul Salaam and defensive ends Mark Gastineau and Marty Lyons to form the legendary “New York Sack Exchange” line earlier in the decade, was coming to the end of his career.

The Jets needed to add depth to their roster, and so they signed Mersereau.

NFL labor tensions in 1987 only made the rookie’s chances of sticking with the Jets stronger. A player strike was imminent and the union was not unified.

The owners had a strong bargaining chip in the veteran players who wanted to stick around for one last taste of glory, and younger players who were also willing to cross the picket line to show they belonged.

When the bulk of the NFL Players Association went out on strike in the third week of the season, Mersereau, who had been staying in Gastineau’s house, stuck around for the chance to prove himself.

After all games were canceled in Week 3, Mersereau and the rest of the replacement Jets took the field in place of many of the usual starters for the next three games.

Fans became dejected. Television ratings plummeted. But Mersereau watched as his stock rose.

He’d record 14 tackles and one sack in his first two games as a replacement player. He was playing so well fellow rookie nose tackle Gerald Nichols, who had replaced Klecko as the starter that season, decided to cross the picket line himself after two weeks of watching Mersereau seize an opportunity that had been his.

Klecko and Lyons had already returned to the team at that point, and Gastineau never even joined the strike. But even with a full compliment of defensive linemen back in the mix, Mersereau had done enough to prove his worth.

“The biggest positive that’s come out of [the strike] is Mersereau,” Jets coach Joe Walton told the New York Times. “He’s got a chance to be a player in this league. He’s a very good football player.”

When the full compliment of players returned in Week 7, Mersereau was one of only two replacement players who stuck around. Lyons said the rest of the Jets squad was happy to have the rookie on their team.

“He made the most out of his opportunity and he stuck around,” Lyons recalled earlier this week. “We saw Scott as a guy who could help us win and it didn’t matter how he got there.”

Mersereau would go on to play in the Jets’ remaining games that year. And with Klecko, who played in only seven games in 1987, released following the season, the kid from Riverhead had found his football home in New Jersey.

One could certainly argue that Scott Mersereau was not the top player on the 1981 Riverhead High School Football team. In fact, he probably wasn’t even the best Scott on his team.

That distinction belonged to linebacker Scott Hackal, an old friend from Calverton who was one year ahead of Mersereau.

NEWS-REVIEW FILE PHOTO | Scott Mersereau (from left), Scott Hackal, Henry Talmage and Darien Johnson were stars of the 1981 Riverhead High football team.

Hackal was a two-time All-County player who following the 1981 season received the first Zellner Award, still given today to Suffolk’s top lineman.

In a News-Review article on Hackal being named to the All-County team for the second year in a row, former Blue Waves coach Dick Herzog called his linebacker/lineman the team’s defensive leader.

“No one I’ve seen can hit like him,” Herzog said. “He plays with a lot of tenacity.”

Hackal and Mersereau were cut from the same cloth. A couple of close friends, they developed their toughness the old-fashioned way. Every summer leading up to football practices the duo would go to work at Karlin Farms in Calverton.

Larry Mersereau, Scott’s father, recalled that the boys would work on setting up the farm’s irrigation system, lugging heavy metal pipes all day long in unbearable summer heat.

“That teaches you to be tough,” Hackal recalled in a recent interview. “Being out there in 102 degree heat, that was some real hard work we did back then.”

Janet Mersereau said her son actually loved the summer job. He enjoyed the physical nature of it. He thrived off the challenge.

By the end of August the boys would turn their attention full-time to football.

The Waves would play to a 3-2-1 record in League V that season with Hackal and fellow senior Rich Smith leading the team in tackles. Also showing promise that season was the junior Mersereau, who played tight end on offense and defensive end on defense, earning All-League honors.

“I’m expecting bigger and better things out of him next season,” said Herzog.

Hackal said that while the team boasted a fair amount of talent — fellow future NFL player John Kacherski made the squad as a freshman — many players didn’t have a certain natural ability Mersereau possessed.

“He was tough and could run like a deer,” Hackal said. “I think it’s that speed that kind of separated him a bit from the rest of us.”

Mersereau gained about 10 pounds that offseason and moved to fullback his senior year.

While he occasionally served as the team’s ball carrier, he did most of his damage opening up holes for tailback Walter Miles.

“He was one of the most devastating blockers we’ve ever had,” Herzog told the News-Review in a 1982 interview. “Scott was often able to take two players out on a block.”

While Miles missed several games due to injury, he still totaled 625 yards and scored three touchdowns for the Waves that year, running behind the hulking Mersereau.

When the other team had the ball, Herzog said they’d often run it away from Mersereau, who made All-County honors despite recording just 54 tackles as opponents avoided him.

Hackal recalls that for as good a football player as he was, Mersereau was also a great baseball player, and he once threw a no-hitter while pitching for Riverhead.

“He was just a great athlete,” Hackal said. “And tough. He had that farm boy toughness.”

Janet Mersereau says she’s proud of each of her sons. But only one has his accomplishments branded on her license plate holder.

“It says my son Scott played for the New York Jets from 1987-1993,” she said with a chuckle.

It’s a fact Scott doesn’t like to brag about.

“He’s so humble in that way,” she said. “If that was me, I’d tell everyone.”

By the time the 1990 season rolled around, Scott Mersereau was a full-fledged Jet. Players like Gastineau and Lyons had already moved on. And Nichols was in his final season with the team.

The closing bell had rung on the New York Sack Exchange and a new breed of Jet had taken over on the defensive line.

Leading the charge was a promising young defensive end out of the University of Tulsa by the name of Dennis Byrd, who had emerged as an emotional leader on defensive coordinator Pete Carroll’s unit.

Byrd was fearless in his pursuit of the quarterback, recording seven sacks in his rookie season in 1989 and following it up with 13 more in his sophomore campaign.

Mersereau meanwhile was growing as a player and he started every game for the Jets between 1988 and 1990. He’d record 4 1/2 sacks in 1988 and again in 1990, with a subpar 1989 season tucked in-between.

He’d miss three games in 1991 with an ankle injury, but still picked up two sacks and a pair of interceptions.

Mersereau and Byrd developed a friendship in their four seasons together with the Jets. When the New York Times did a feature on Mersereau in 1991, Byrd jumped in an started ribbing his linemate.

“He’s only the nose tackle because he’s 5-foot-5,” he joked with the reporter.

Mersereau shot back: “My weight is 275 and my height is 6-3. Ask him if he’ll switch with me and that will give you the answer.”

The Jets duo would even share a house for two weeks during training camp in 1992, where they’d watch movies together almost every night.

In 1992, Byrd and Mersereau were thriving even as the Jets team was not.

The Jets lost each of their first five games and they headed into the Week 13 game against Kansas City with just a 3-8 record.

Mersereau defended the coaching staff that week to a reporter from the New York Times, saying the attitude on the team had changed.

“There’s no finger-pointing here,” he said. “We’re not that good. The truth hurts. But look how we played the second half at New England. We’ve got some pride.”

With five sacks, Mersereau was enjoying his finest season as a Jet. Byrd had recorded seven sacks in the first 11 games and was playing at the high level everyone had come to expect from him.

DAVID DRAPKIN/GETTY IMAGES | Jets defensive end Dennis Byrd spent seven minutes on the Meadowlands turf before being carried out on a stretcher Nov. 29, 1992. He had collided with Scott Mersereau, who walked away with a sprained ankle. He'd later say he also suffered back injuries as a result of the collision.

He was in pursuit of sack number eight when his career ended.

It’s easy to see how such a collision could happen in the game of football. After all, the job of both the defensive tackle and the defensive end is to pursue the quarterback when he’s rolling around in the pocket looking to pass.

Mersereau told the New York Times in May 1993 that he could barely remember what happened on the play.

“I remember charging, and thinking, ‘I got a nice shot at the quarterback,’” he said. “All I saw was a green flash. I was down.”

Mersereau would lay on the ground for about two minutes before walking off with a sprained ankle.

Byrd’s almost lifeless body stayed on the Meadowlands turf for another five minutes before he was carried off on a stretcher.

Janet Mersereau remembers sitting in the stands that day one row in front of Angela Byrd, Dennis’ wife. The two of them watched in horror as the medical staff attended to their loved ones.

“Oh my God,” Janet said, talking about the injury nearly 20 years later. “It was so scary.”

Somehow, Mersereau returned to the field the following week.

Part of his motivation, he told The New York Times, came from a conversation with a hospitalized Byrd.

“We’re football players,” Byrd would tell him. “This is what we do.”

Hackal was watching television one day this summer when he flipped the dial and stumbled on “Rise and Walk: The Dennis Byrd Story.”

Actor Patrick Warburton, best known for playing the popular character David Puddy on “Seinfeld,” portrays Mersereau in the film. The Mersereau character is shown struggling with the collision, blaming himself for what happened.

Lyons recalls Mersereau taking the aftermath of the collision particularly hard.

“That’s something Scott will have to carry with him for the rest of his life,” Lyons said. “But he had no responsibility in the injury at all. These things happen in football. Unfortunately, Scott was in the wrong place at the wrong time.”

Lyons, who said he could tell instantly that Byrd had broken his neck as he watched from home with his wife, visited Byrd in the hospital soon after the injury.

“He said ‘I’m glad it was me and not one of my teammates that got hurt, because I know that I have the faith to get through this,’” Lyons recalled.

Mersereau told The Daily News in 1997, in what was billed as the only newspaper interview he’s done since his retirement, that he struggled mightily to move on from the horror of that day.

“At times, it’s been pure hell,” he told Daily News writer Rich Cimini.

Mersereau played just 13 games in 1993 as he battled through back injuries, something he’d later say he believed was linked to the collision with Byrd. He’d record one sack that season to bring his career total up to 19.

After the season, he was released by the Jets and later signed a one-year contract with the Green Bay Packers that included a six-figure signing bonus. He’d never play a regular season game for the Packers.

After 102 games and seven brutal years in the NFL, Mersereau retired from the game.

Cimini captured the agony of what Mersereau has had to deal with physically since retiring in his 1997 piece, which revisited Mersereau and Byrd on the fifth anniversary of the collision: “Mersereau, forced to quit at 28 because of excruciating back pain, underwent a 12-hour operation in 1995,” Cimini wrote. “He needed a three-level fusion, with bone grafted from his hip, to repair two fractured vertebrae in his lower back. Eerily, it was a procedure similar to the one performed on Byrd’s neck.”

One thing Mersereau said helped him get over the mental anguish and misplaced guilt from the collision was a visit he paid to Byrd in the hospital.

During that visit, Byrd placed his hand on Mersereau’s shoulder and walked 26 steps, according to the Daily News. Both men said they count that moment among the most special in their lives.

BOCA RATON HIGH SCHOOL COURTESY PHOTO | Today Scott Mersereau serves as the defensive line coach on his son's high school team in Boca Raton, Fla.

After retiring, Mersereau moved to Boca Raton, Fla., where he works as a financial adviser. Janet Mersereau said Scott’s education — he graduated college with a 3.75 GPA — has helped him earn a good living after his playing days were over.

“I always tell my grandchildren that’s why it’s important for you to do good in school and not just sports,” she said.

Mersereau still has some football-related aches and pains, but Janet says her son is in good health.

In 2000, Mersereau began coaching his son Dylan on the Boca Raton Jets youth football team. In 2009, he joined the staff at Boca Raton High School, where he coaches the defensive line for head coach and fellow former Jet Keith Byars, who coincidentally bought a home in the same complex where Mersereau lives.

Dylan Mersereau played safety for the Bobcats varsity last season, a team that featured Keith Byars II at running back.

Dylan’s highlight reel on YouTube shows a 6-foot, 170 pound sophomore with surprising quickness and the ability to punish ball carriers who get in his way.

Like father, like son.

Janet said Scott, now 46, never gave up his love of football, despite the physical and emotional pain it has caused.

In January, word of Byrd’s riveting playoff speech made its way down to the Mersereau family in Florida.

Janet paused for a second when recalling the impact news of the speech had on her son.

“We were all just so moved,” she said, choking back tears. “Scott was very emotional when he heard.”

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08/10/11 7:55am

SAN DIEGO CHARGERS COURTESY PHOTO | San Diego Chargers assistant general Ed McGuire is a 1980 graduate of Riverhead High School.

It was a long, twisting road that led Ed McGuire from the ball fields of Riverhead High School to a high position as a National Football League executive. That really should not come as a surprise, though. As McGuire pointed out, there really is no blueprint for the career path he has taken.

McGuire, who was born and raised in Riverhead, has risen through the ranks of various football offices and is currently the assistant general manager and executive vice president of football operations for the San Diego Chargers. This is McGuire’s 13th year with the Chargers. In 2007 he was promoted to executive vice president of football operations, and in 2008 he became assistant general manager.

His position entails great responsibility. McGuire oversees player contract negotiations as well as the day-to-day business and administrative operations of the scouting department, coaching department, equipment and video departments, training staff and strength and conditioning staff.

Probably his most visible work is in the area of player contract negotiations, which McGuire said is more art than science. In what was at the time the largest contract ever signed by a running back in NFL history, McGuire negotiated an eight-year contract extension for 2006 league Most Valuable Player and two-time NFL rushing champion LaDainian Tomlinson in 2004. In 2009, McGuire worked out the largest player contract in team history, a six-year, $92 million contract extension for quarterback Philip Rivers.

“Every day is a new adventure,” McGuire told The Riverhead News-Review in a recent interview. “You get to live and die with the team.”

When McGuire was a youngster, he knew he wanted to be involved in sports. At Riverhead High School, he was a wide receiver for the football team and a middle infielder for the baseball team before graduating in 1980.

McGuire’s desire to be involved in sports brought him to St. John’s University, where he graduated with a degree in athletic administration.

While at St. John’s, McGuire worked as a marketing intern for the United States Football League. After the USFL folded, McGuire followed his boss, Peter Ruocco, into the NFL office, working in the player personnel department in 1987. Following several years in the NFL office, McGuire tried his fortune at selling life insurance and mutual funds. But McGuire found he couldn’t shake the football bug and became involved in NFL Europe. Following one season of that, he was back in the NFL office.

With a new collective bargaining agreement in 1993, NFL teams had to operate within the confines of salary caps. “Every team realized that they needed a person to know the salary cap inside and out,” said McGuire, who was ideally positioned to learn the new system. He became a leading expert, a so-called capologist.

While the salary cap sounds like complicated stuff, McGuire said, “Once you know it, like anything else, you know it.”

Since the NFL player lockout ended, things have undoubtedly gotten busier for McGuire, but he wouldn’t complain. He said he is fortunate to do work that he enjoys.

“I never go to a job,” he said. “I go to do something that I love to do.”

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08/09/11 7:57am
08/09/2011 7:57 AM

MICHAEL GASPARINO PHOTO | Former NHL and Team USA players Chris (left) and Peter Ferraro at their summer hockey camp at Islanders Iceworks in Syosset.

Their gloves are different.

That’s the quickest way to tell Chris and Peter Ferraro apart as they skate around the rink, teaching at one of their summer hockey camps. The 38-year-old identical twins dress in matching black warm-ups, wear the same brand of skates, with black baseball caps worn backwards — mirror images of each other as they command, encourage, motivate and cajole the two dozen or so young players running through drills at Islanders Iceworks in Syosset.

That the brothers — two of only a handful of players from Long Island to make it to the National Hockey League and just the second pair of twins ever to play on the same NHL team — are teaching hockey together surprises exactly no one.

Since they were born in 1973 (Chris is one minute older) the Ferraro brothers have been pretty much inseparable. From prep school and junior hockey to winning an NCAA national championship and the Olympics, to a professional career that spanned 15 years — mostly on the same teams — with 166 combined games in the NHL, Chris and Peter Ferraro have never been far apart.

Only eight days left of the 20 Greatest Athletes in area history countdown

That’s not changing anytime soon.

“They’ve been together always,” said their mother, Diane, from behind the counter at Plaza Surf and Sports in Rocky Point, the sporting goods business the family has run for almost 40 years. “If one was hurt, the other knew it. They had their fights, don’t get me wrong — there were plenty of holes in the basement walls … but they have a connection you can’t explain.”

Spend 10 minutes at Plaza Surf and Sports and you’ll quickly understand where the Ferraro brothers found their work ethic.

It’s a family business in the truest sense, with older brothers Michael and Joseph and younger sister Michelle at the store just about every day. And so it was one weekend afternoon, with Chris and Peter in the hockey section helping outfit a couple of their students with new equipment.

“They always come back to Sound Beach, whether I want them to or not,” Diane said with a smile. “They come back to their roots. It’s home.”

“We grew up in a family setting where we knew what it was like to work seven days a week, and see your family struggle and grind to make a living,” Peter said. “You go up to Plaza Surf and Sports you have my mother, who is 65 years old, up there seven days a week.”

The Ferraros have been surrounded by sports their entire lives, and not just through the family business (they’ve had a second Plaza location in Montauk for 25 years). Father Peter was a minor league baseball player and older brothers Michael and Joe were also athletes, so of course the twins would be as well.

MICHAEL GASPARINO PHOTO | Peter Ferraro was selected No. 24 overall by the Rangers in the 1992 NHL Draft. His brother Chris was then selected by the Rangers in the fourth round, keeping them together on the ice.

They grew up as Islanders fans, raised during the Stanley Cup championship era, and started playing ice hockey at age six. By age nine, they were playing with an elite program in Philadelphia, having already surpassed the hockey opportunities available locally.

Chris said his father rented out the ice rink in Dix Hills, and when the boys were 12, he and a partner founded the Rye Rangers, a travel team featuring top players from the tri-state area, and they played in tournaments across the U.S. and Canada.

“It was a nonstop ongoing journey for us,” Chris said. “We put in a lot of miles. It was very challenging, but we had the full support of our family to make that possible.”

The brothers attended Joseph A. Edgar School in Rocky Point, but eventually moved on to attend the Tabor Academy in Massachusetts. By age 16, they had advanced to junior hockey, moving to Iowa (their mother and sister went along with them) to play for the Dubuque Fighting Saints of the USHL.

“It was a major adjustment and a major step up,” Chris said. “I almost packed my bags and went back because I didn’t think I was ready for that competition. We were small guys and were playing against grown men.”

“We made decisions together,” Peter added. “I felt we should stay. I knew that we could meet the challenge. At every level we played, we exceeded the expectations of our abilities, being smaller players. We’ve never shied away from any challenge. If fact, we’ve embraced it.”

It didn’t take long for the pair to settle in. Chris led the league in scoring that first year, with 53 goals and 97 points, while Peter chipped in with 21 goals and 52 points. The following season, split between the Saints and the Waterloo Black Hawks, the pair were 1-2 in league scoring: Peter with 48 goals and 53 assists for 101 points, and Chris with 49 goals and 50 assists.

The Ferraros’ junior seasons and their performance playing for the U.S. at the 1992 World Junior Championships (Peter was named All-World), boosted their draft rating considerably.

Sure enough, the New York Rangers selected Peter in the first round, 24th overall in 1992. The brothers were prepared to go their separate ways, but while Chris had to sit through the second and third rounds wondering when his turn would come, it all worked out when the Rangers stepped up in round four to keep the brothers together.

The following year, the brothers went to the University of Maine and enjoyed one of the best seasons in college hockey history, helping the Black Bears to a 42-1-2 record and the NCAA Division I championship.

“It was arguably the best college hockey team put on the ice,” Chris said of a team that featured future NHL superstar Paul Kariya up front, and an unbeatable goaltending tandem of Garth Snow and Mike Dunham, who are now, respectively, general manager and goaltending coach for the Islanders.

“We knew we were going into one of the best programs out there,” Chris said. “It was one of those situations where you look around the locker room, and you say to yourself, there’s just no possible way we’re going to lose tonight. We had every piece of the puzzle.”

FRIEDEMANN VOGEL/BONGARTS/GETTY IMAGES | Peter Ferraro (L) and Chris Ferraro (R) celebrate a goal during the TUI Nations Cup match between the USA and Slovakia at the TUI Arena in Hanover, Germany on Nov. 13, 2005.

After winning the NCAA title, the Ferraros set their sights on winning a gold medal with the USA men’s hockey team at the 1994 Olympic Winter Games in Lillehammer, Norway.

“When they put on the USA hockey jersey, that was one of the proudest moments I’ve experienced in my life,” said Diane. “It was about pride in your country. You’re waving your flag in another country, there’s nothing like it. It was incredible.”

“When you have the honor and the privilege of playing for your country, there’s no greater feeling in the world,” Peter said, adding that the U.S. team excelled in its exhibition matches. “We’re playing NHL teams, we’re playing top teams in Europe. And we weren’t just winning games, we were absolutely dominating teams.”

Unfortunately, the pre-Olympic success didn’t carry over to the Games themselves. The U.S. team went 1-1-3 in the first round and then lost to Finland in the quarterfinals, 6-1, to finish in eighth place. “The chemistry just fell apart,” Peter said, pointing to roster adjustments made prior to the Games.

“They tried to better the team and it didn’t work out as expected,” Chris added. “It went in a different direction.”

Peter was the first twin called to the NHL, but while he played on a line with Mark Messier, something was missing. “I couldn’t completely enjoy the experience because I was alone,” Peter said. “My twin’s not here. To explain the bond … you can’t explain it. My mother knows, she has a finger on us. But you actually have to be a twin to really know it because you feel each other and know each other’s tendencies. It’s the greatest blessing.”

The brothers were later called up together, and Peter doesn’t hesitate when asked what their most memorable moment was in the NHL. It was Chris’s first career goal, at Madison Square Garden against John Vanbiesbrouck and the Florida Panthers, with assists by Brian Leetch and — yes — Peter Ferraro.

“The whole family was there,” Peter recalled. “It was just tremendous.”

Peter played in 92 NHL games for the Rangers, Pittsburgh Penguins, Boston Bruins and Washington Capitals, with nine goals and 15 assists. Chris played in 74 NHL games for the Rangers, Penguins, Islanders and Edmonton Oilers, finishing with seven goals and nine assists. The pair also played in the minors — and faced off against each other a couple of times — in the AHL, IHL and ECHL, and played together for Sodertalje in the Swedish Elite League, and in Germany for the DEG Metro Stars.

Peter totaled 251 goals in the AHL, scoring 52 goals and 51 assists in his final two professional seasons with the Las Vegas Wranglers. He helped the Providence Bruins win the Calder Cup in 1999, when he was named MVP of the playoffs. Chris scored 21 goals in his final pro season in 2008-09, and helped the Chicago Wolves win the IHL’s Turner Cup in 2000.

Looking back on their careers, the brothers are quick to credit their coaches for their development, from John Hill and Rob Grill in juniors, to Shawn Walsh, Red Gendron and Grant Standbrook at Maine, to Chuck Grillo with the Minnesota Hockey Camps in the summers, when they trained with top players from across the globe for 12 weeks, 14 hours a day.

They’re looking to provide that same level of instruction with Ferraro Brothers Elite Hockey, which runs clinics and camps at several Long Island rinks. Their brother Joe is among the instructors.

“That’s our primary goal, to come back here and give to our local hockey base so they can get top-notch training from players who have gone down that path,” Chris said. “It’s a mission of ours to give them opportunities. We put or heart and soul into it.”

Running a hockey school wasn’t necessarily what the brothers planned on doing when their playing careers ended, but it quickly became clear that this was their calling.

“During our playing career we did this in the summers, as a hobby,” Chris said. “But over a few summers, we were like, ‘We love doing this.’ Just the way the kids related to us, and the way we relate to the kids. And there’s a major need for it.”

“Every athlete has a very difficult transition when it’s over,” Chris continued. “You’re playing at the highest levels, and how do you come down from that? It was a situation where we knew we could transition very easily into this. It’s more rewarding. It’s absolutely phenomenal.”

This summer was the first full summer for the Ferraros, with nine weeks of hockey schools. “We are so busy, I know what it’s like to work for a living now,” Chris said. “We’re working harder than ever, but it’s our passion, so we don’t mind it. We love it.”

“It’s probably the most rewarding job that I’ve ever had,” Peter added. “Chris and I have always had that ability to make the players around us better. And now that we’re in a position where we can give back to the local hockey community, it’s by far the most rewarding opportunity we’ve had in a long time.”

The brothers said the next step would be to establish a hockey facility to provide Long Island players the opportunities they had to leave the Island to enjoy.

“The most difficult thing is, honestly, not having a home,” Chris said. “If there was a facility where we had access to ice time and off-ice training in one spot, a state-of-the-art facility with two rinks, off-ice training capabilities, and skill development stations. It’s not difficult for my brother and I, because that’s what we know. And I think we’re in an area that can benefit from it hugely.”

Chris noted that places like Boston, Minnesota and Canada have the facilities where young players believe they can play at the highest levels, whereas Long Island parents seem resigned to accept that those same opportunities don’t exist for their kids. They’d like to change that.

“If we had the ability to latch onto a group that could invest in something to that degree, it’s an expensive project to put together,” Chris said. “But yeah, my brother and I would be in our glory to oversee the operations of everything on and off the ice.”

It would be a perfect coda to a hockey career that has given the twins more than they ever could have imagined. They’ve visited The White House (twice), have had their gear in the Hockey Hall of Fame, traveled the world, played with Wayne Gretzky — on the same line — and alongside other all-time greats like Messier, Leetch, Ray Borque, Jaromir Jagr, Ron Francis and Pat LaFontaine.

“To look back and say here we are, two Long Island guys, who did this on our own with the support of our family, it was a long, tedious road,” Peter said. “But we found the resources to give ourselves a chance. And then to go to Canada and realize that we’re right there with these guys, and you know what, we’re better than these guys. We’re doing something right here.”

“You don’t become successful by sitting around and hoping that things work out,” Peter added. “It all comes down to hard work and determination, and Chris and I have had the luxury of sharing those experiences together.”

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