Instead of working out twice a day in preparation for a monster senior season, as he had planned, Jermaine spent his summer in the hospital. From there he went to Gaylord Hospital, a rehabilitation center in Wallingford, Conn., where nurses grew accustomed to hearing him groan in the middle of the night as he rose early to start his exercises. Once he disobeyed the doctors and tried to walk down the hall without his cane. His legs gave out, he fell and his plastic urine bag exploded. When the nurses found him lying on the floor, soaked in his own urine, he was giggling. "Guess I fumbled," he told them.
The case of Jermaine Ewell had all the markings of a cause c�l�bre. It was a perfect storm of topics the mass media find irresistible: kids, sports, violence and, not least, race. Plus it came at a time when race relations in the New York City area were at a low point. Two years earlier a black teenager named Yusuf Hawkins had been fatally shot in broad daylight for having had the audacity to walk around the predominantly white Bensonhurst section of Brooklyn. Not long after Jermaine was beaten, in the summer of 1991, Yankel Rosenbaum, a rabbinical student from Australia, would be stabbed to death by a young man in a crowd of African-Americans in the Brooklyn neighborhood of Crown Heights. Without much effort the assault on Jermaine could have been made part of the same ugly tapestry: A black football star gets bludgeoned into a coma by a gang of white kids over an interracial relationship.
Except that Jermaine and his family wouldn't let that happen. Scan the newspaper accounts from 1991, and you won't find Jermaine making a single disparaging remark about his attackers. "Honestly, I was just concentrating on my recovery," he says now. "I didn't have to suppress anger or revenge or anything like that, because I couldn't spend energy on that. I had to put everything I had into getting better."
While Jermaine was still in the hospital, the Reverend Al Sharpton organized a racially charged protest on the boardwalk where the beating had occurred. Jermaine's relatives sent word that they had no interest in being involved. "He was trying to make it something it wasn't," Jermaine says of Sharpton. "This was about five guys, and four of them weren't even from here. To try and paint the entire community [as racist] was unfair." Sharpton's rally went on as planned, but without the subject of it lending his support, it fizzled.
If Jermaine treated his recovery as a competitive sport, the community was his team. When word got out that he lacked health insurance, donations rolled in. Classmates sent dollar bills, sometimes even coins. Doctors, lawyers and bankers sent hundreds and sometimes thousands of dollars. Strangers offered to run errands for Jermaine's mom. Once he left the hospital, Jermaine couldn't go to a deli or diner without someone offering to pick up the tab.
"The way the people here supported me--and I don't just mean the money--was unbelievable," he says. "I felt that people were cheering for me, the same as when I was playing football."
Beyond a full recovery, Jermaine's overarching goal was to graduate with his class at Lawrence High. He needed a full-time tutor. He needed to take tests without time limits. But on June 30, 1992, he walked gingerly down the aisle and picked up his diploma as applause and tears cascaded about him.
Meanwhile, the five attackers had been arrested and charged with a variety of crimes, including attempted murder. Predictably their ties, tenuous to begin with, frayed quickly, and each man pointed a finger at someone else. Donahue agreed to plead guilty to second-degree riot, partially in exchange for testifying against Siegel, and was sentenced only to probation. Siegel defiantly went to trial and, contradicting many witnesses, asserted that not only had he never struck Jermaine but he had also tried to talk the other four defendants out of the attack. Siegel was convicted of first-degree assault as well as conspiracy, riot and criminal possession of a weapon. Imposing a sentence of seven to 20 years, Nassau County Court Judge Donald Belfi gave Siegel a withering stare and said, "To jump someone from behind and to beat him as he lay unconscious is the epitome of cowardice."
After that Kussoff, Pearl and Peralta quickly pleaded out. None of the three would spend more than three years in prison.
There were no bars or walls or spools of razor wire around Jermaine, but he too had to live with limits on his freedom and potential. He enrolled at Howard University in Washington, D.C., but dropped out when his short-term memory loss and persistent headaches made it almost impossible to keep up with schoolwork. He turned inward and seldom left his house. While he was grateful for the sympathy from so many quarters--his favorite football team, the New York Jets, named him honorary captain for a game and invited him to watch from a luxury suite--the attention began to embarrass him. "Just picking up the pieces and trying to get things back to normal," he says with a sigh, "was harder than I'd ever imagined."