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Saved by Sports
L. Jon Wertheim
June 27, 2005
Fourteen years ago a high school junior named Jermaine Ewell was beaten into a coma by a former schoolmate and his crew. Both the victim and his assailant were athletes, and that was the key to Ewell's survival--and, in the end, to his attacker's redemption
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June 27, 2005

Saved By Sports

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

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

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

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

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

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

"Is your son an organ donor?"

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

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

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

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

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