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They all have a story. Everyone in Arena Football2 can recite a saga that purports to explain why he's playing in this quirky indoor league that's at least a Hail Mary from the NFL, earning $200 a game and living in a motel room by the interstate. Just scan the field at the Albany ( N.Y.) Conquest's training camp, and you'll see what we mean. The guy throwing those quick out passes? He's the starting quarterback, D. Bryant. He played for Duke but transferred to Iowa Wesleyan and never found traction there. The guy rushing the passer? That's linebacker Jameel Dumas, who was a star at Syracuse before blowing out his left knee. The kicker sitting on his helmet in the end zone? Vinny Cirrincione, a local kid. By the time he realized he had a knack for booting an oblong ball through the uprights, he had skipped college to work at his parents' pizzeria.
"Everyone is here for a reason--a bad decision, an injury, a personal problem, something that derailed his career," says Albany's coach, Richard Davis, a disarmingly straight-talking Texan who himself will last only six games before being fired by the Conquest. "People see this league as a pipeline. These guys are happy for this chance, but they aren't necessarily satisfied being here. They're aspiring to the NFL. At least I hope they are!"
But this spring there was one player who was content simply to be running around the turf in Albany's Pepsi Arena. Jermaine Ewell couldn't stop smiling as he worked through the tip drills and the thug drills, absorbing and dispensing hits. Making it to the NFL had once been his obsession. But that was a long time ago. His dreadlocks poking out from a helmet that obscured the zippers of surgical scars on his head, the 6'1", 230-pound Ewell was simply experiencing football again: the sounds, the rhythms, the lulls followed by spasms of violence. That was plenty.
Ewell wouldn't survive the Conquest's final cuts, but that almost didn't matter. He was back on the field. At 31 he was nearly a decade older than some of his teammates, but he didn't look it. He hadn't played more than a few weeks of football since 1990, but he concealed that pretty well too. On the day he handed in his playbook, he picked up his bag and thanked the coaches for the audition. He was gone before most of the other players got wind of his how-I-ended-up-here story--the most arresting tale of them all.
They called him the Streak. Playing linebacker and fullback for the Lawrence ( N.Y.) High Golden Tornadoes, Jermaine Ewell was a brutal tackler with a rippling upper body and a sixth sense for where a play was headed. But his biggest asset was his speed. Timed in the 40-yard dash at 4.4 seconds, he was the fastest kid on the field, a DSL modem in a dial-up league. "You'd think there was no way Jermaine could make the play," says Richard Mollo, his coach then, "but he was so quick, it was like--bam!--and the other guy would be on the ground with Jermaine on top of him."
In the fall of 1990, Jermaine's junior season, he led the team in solo tackles. Before he was named to various all-conference and all-county teams, scouts and coaches from college programs on the order of Virginia Tech sat in the Lawrence bleachers to get a look at him. A solid senior season and Jermaine would be a lock to get a full ride in Division I-A. "He got better with every game," says Pat Palleschi, a co-captain that season who later played at Hofstra. "There was no doubt he was going to play at the next level."
Jermaine was a minor celebrity throughout the Five Towns--a string of communities on the South Shore of Long Island that include Lawrence--but it was as much for his winning personality as for what he did on the football field. He may have been an African-American kid in a predominantly white and Jewish enclave, the son of a domestic in one of the most affluent zip codes in the U.S., but he moved easily in all social circles. Despite a learning disability that kept his grades in the B and C range, Jermaine was beloved by his teachers. The odd jobs he did (mowing yards, painting houses, restoring deck chairs) put him in touch with the community's adult movers and shakers. "He was the coolest kid you could imagine," says Mollo, a father figure to Jermaine, whose dad had died a few years before. "Guys, girls, older, younger, black, white, jock, not a jock--everyone wanted to be his friend."
Syd Mandelbaum, a former Lawrence school board member who runs a hunger relief organization, offers perhaps the highest praise in the Five Towns' lexicon: He says Jermaine was "a real mensch." So it was no surprise that when trouble found Jermaine, a crowd rushed to his defense.
On June 1, 1991, the last Saturday night of his junior year, Jermaine, then 17, went to a "key party"--at which underage drinkers could suckle on a keg provided they surrendered their car keys to the host--and met up with a girl named Nikki Diamond. This didn't go over well with one of Nikki's old flames, Shannon Siegel. A husky former baseball star at Lawrence who was the starting third baseman at Adelphi College, Siegel was at the party with his pickup basketball buddy James (Jimbo) Peralta and three of Jimbo's pals from the Bayside section of Queens: Ian Pearl, David Donahue and Gregory Kussoff. Nikki would later claim that, out of Jermaine's earshot, Siegel asked her what she was doing with "nigger money." (Jermaine had given Nikki $5 to pay the party's admission and beer charge.) Siegel vigorously denies having used the n word but concedes that he and his pals had been drinking and were giving Nikki a hard time.
Regardless, when Nikki told Jermaine what Siegel had said, Jermaine was offended. But more than that, he was confused. They had mutual friends, and they'd never had a problem. Two months earlier they had been part of a small group that had driven to Manhattan to visit a club. Now, as Jermaine confronted Siegel, an army of classmates backed him up. No one raised a fist--certainly not Jermaine, who didn't even curse, much less fight. But it was made clear that Siegel and his four friends were no longer welcome at the party. "It wasn't like some sort of big feud," Jermaine recalls. "They were drinking. They said things they shouldn't have said. They left. I thought it was cool."