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By that time, lung cancer was winning the war it had been waging against Joyce Siegel. Before she died, neighbors were curious about the kid with long hair and a slight limp who paid her periodic visits. By then she was too weak to explain that it was Jermaine Ewell, checking in on her. "The way he treated my mother," Shannon says, his voice catching, "is something I'll never forget."
By last year Ewell's headaches had stopped, his vision had cleared, his equilibrium had fully returned. But when he told friends and family members that he was thinking about returning to football, they all gave the same response: You need to get your head examined. He took it literally, seeking out Overby for medical clearance. Grudgingly the neurosurgeon gave it. "He's an adult who can make choices, and physically he can play," says Overby. "I explained that when you have a serious head injury, you don't want to put yourself at risk for another. Do I want him playing a contact sport? No."
Ewell says he knows the risks, but he adds, "I have to do this for me. This isn't about making it to the pros. It's about getting back something that was taken from me."
Ken Leistner played football at Lawrence High in the '60s with Lyle Alzado and later became a chiropractor and a strength trainer for elite athletes. Like just about everyone around the Five Towns, he'd followed Ewell's recovery. "When I heard he was thinking about making a comeback," he says, "I thought, I can help him get stronger."
Apart from Ewell's daily visits to a swank gym where, until recently, he was a personal trainer, he has three sessions a week with the man he calls Dr. Ken. Leistner has transformed his clapboard house on a quiet tree-lined block in Valley Stream into a spartan gym frequented by NFL players, track stars and wheelchair athletes. Nautilus machines are scattered through the basement; the driveway is strewn with boulders and tires and a foundry's worth of iron slabs. Neighbors are inured to watching large men vomit on the curbside tulips. "Dr. Ken doesn't pretend," says Chip Morton, the Cincinnati Bengals' strength coach. "The guy is just brutal, but one of the best at extracting effort from his athletes."
Training with NFL types such as former Detroit Lions Pro Bowl linebacker Stephen Boyd and former New York Giants defensive end Frank Ferrara, Ewell held his own and developed his Body by Zeus: cables of veins up his arms, bulging pecs, fire-hydrant thighs. Leistner worked his contacts this spring, and Ewell was invited to try out for Arena Football2 teams. "The question," Leistner says, "was, How will this guy respond to taking a lick?"
The answer came during Ewell's first practice with the Bakersfield Blitz in California. During a blocking play, he collided with a 245-pound linebacker. "It was like being hit by a car," Ewell says. He took inventory of his body, determined that everything was O.K. and returned to the line of scrimmage.
He didn't make the Bakersfield team, but at both its camp and the Albany Conquest's he made a good impression. "There was some rust there, which was to be expected, but I told him he was welcome back next year," says Paul Press, the Blitz director of football operations. "He was all class."
Last month Ewell was offered a job as the Conquest's strength and conditioning coach. But for now his flame for playing still burns. "I know my body can handle the contact," he says. "I haven't gotten playing football out of my system." He talks about trying to hook up with a Canadian Football League team or trying out for NFL Europe. His immediate goal is to stay in shape and continue adding mass.
So it was that on a balmy Friday morning in May, Ewell was in Leistner's driveway working out with three other football players, "taking it to the limit and then going further," Leistner says. Standing there exhausted, with sweat staining three layers of clothing, Ewell lifted an amount of weight unfathomable to most of us and tried to propel it over his head 10 times. Midway through the reps, with the weight resting on his shoulders, his legs buckled and his back started to curve. He unleashed a scream that pierced the suburban calm.