When we moved from Bed-Stuy to Staten Island, I stopped speaking. I was in the 2nd grade at PS 35 and looking back, I believe I was mute because I was terrified of my teacher, Mrs. Fisher, who was white. I thought that she being white and I being black meant she hated me. She was a gentle and kind lady. She sat with me in the lunchroom every day. She never pushed or pried. One day, she told me something amazing: “I am here for you, Vernon.” She was consistent, which is the greatest gift you can give a child. When I began speaking a month later, it was to her. Mrs. Fisher was my first lifeline.
But my home life was still rough and chaotic. In a few years, there were five of us children. My dad tried to help me cope. He had season tickets to the New York Jets so he took me to a game. That was it: I fell completely in love with football.
When I entered Curtis HS, I met Fred Olivieri, my mentor, my friend, my everything. He was an oceanography teacher and the football coach. I was 5’6” and 96 pounds, and you had to be minimum 100 to make the team. I tied a 10-pound weight around my waist, under baggy sweats and made it. Years later, Fred confessed he knew I was adding the 10-pounder. But he said to himself, “Yup, I got a football player here.” He’s always been a matter-of-fact person. He pushed me and at the same time he kept me grounded. He told me to remember I was never as great as others might tell me and I was never as bad as I told myself I was. I think he responded in the nurturing way he did because he saw a kid who gave it everything he had. He told me once that I have the heart of a lion. In my sophomore year of high school, my mom died of pneumonia. After that, my relationship with Fred and his wife and kids went to a new level. They treated me like family. Fred got me a football scholarship to Carson-Newman University in Jefferson City, Tennessee.
In my freshman year of college, my father had a stroke and died. An aunt cared for my brothers and sisters, but in my senior year she said no more. To keep them from going into foster care, I decided I would get myself into the NFL, a laughable notion I had no business even thinking about.
I turned to Fred and, as always, he came through. As a favor to him, an agent he knew took me on. I wasn’t the greatest player, but I was 185 pounds of muscle and ready to die on that football field to keep a roof over our heads. In 1990, the Buffalo Bills signed me to their practice squad. I went home, and my brothers and sisters and I cheered and hugged and celebrated. I went off later and cried like a baby. I made a good salary and sent every penny home.
I can’t say what would have happened to me if it wasn’t for Fred Olivieri. We talk once a week. I never hang up without telling Fred I love him.
As told to reporter Christina Cheakolos.