Former pros enter LI schools sports world
Wesley Walker stepped onto the playground at a Kings Park elementary school and was met by excited squeals.
"Mr. Walker!" a group of children shouted, pausing their afternoon ballgame.
The pint-size fans weren't born when Walker retired in 1989 as a New York Jets wide receiver. But they all know his post-football profession: physical education teacher at Park View Elementary School.
Walker, 58, is among a small cadre of former professional athletes -- including ex-minor league baseball players Doug Hecker and Rob Grable -- who chose to teach elementary and middle school students on Long Island after their playing days were done.
By many accounts, it's a rare path.
"It requires an incredible amount of patience, empathy and training," said Scott Tinley, a former professional triathlete and founder of San Diego State University's Athlete Retirement Institute, a nonprofit group that researches the challenges pros face as they leave sports.
"I know hundreds of professional athletes who have coached . . . at the secondary level," he said. "I cannot think of one who has gone on to embark on a post-athletic career that includes a full-time commitment to elementary school."
Drafted by the Jets in 1977, Walker caught 438 passes for 8,306 yards and 71 touchdowns in 13 seasons. Working offseasons, he obtained a bachelor's degree in behavioral science from Mercy College in Dobbs Ferry and a master's in education from Fordham University in 1990.
"I like the kids on the elementary level the best," said Walker, of Dix Hills, who has taught at Park View for 14 years.
He says he still battles injuries from his playing days. "There are days, because of my injuries -- I've had major neck surgery, I had my knee reconstructed, my shoulder reconstructed," he said. "But when I come in the morning, they make me happy. They're laughing, joking around. I don't know what it is, but it motivates me."
Denise Paratore, co-vice president of the Park View Parent Faculty Association, said Walker is well-liked by students, including her own three children.
"He's just very personable with them," said Paratore, 42, of Kings Park. "If it's their birthday, he gives them lollipops."
For Hecker, 42, of Farmingdale, teaching emerged as a plan B. The first baseman-pitcher was drafted by the Boston Red Sox in 1992 and worked as a substitute in Levittown during his offseasons before retiring from the Milwaukee Brewers organization in 1998.
"You don't get paid very much at the minor league level, so it's like a rat race," said Hecker, who received a bachelor's in physical education from Adelphi University in 2002 and has taught at Robert Frost Middle School in Deer Park since 2005.
Middle schoolers "still like phys ed," Hecker said, before leading a recent class on Wiffle ball. "At the high school level . . . they don't like to sweat."
Fellow phys ed teacher Chris LoPiccolo said Hecker brings the "discipline and dedication" required to be a pro athlete into the classroom.
It has been more than 10 years since Grable has taught fourth- and fifth-graders, but the Mount Sinai High School principal still remembers it.
"They're intrigued by where you've been when they hear that you played with Derek Jeter . . . or you got a hit or struck out against Andy Pettitte," said Grable, 43, of Oakdale, who was drafted by the Detroit Tigers in 1991 and played through 1995 in the Philadelphia Phillies organization.
Grable used a bachelor's in athletic administration from St. John's University and a master's in elementary education from Dowling College to carve out a second chapter as an administrator.
Alex Pintabona, a 17-year-old senior at Mount Sinai who played varsity baseball, said Grable offers tips, like using one's legs to hit farther.
"I always wanted to be a professional baseball player, so having someone close like that -- hearing his stories and how he came up -- it was pretty cool learning what it takes to become a professional athlete," Pintabona said.
Several former pro athletes coach high school teams across Long Island.
Stephen Boyd, 40, a linebacker for the Detroit Lions from 1995 to 2001, has been head football coach at Chaminade High School in Mineola for four years. John Habyan, 49 -- who pitched for the Baltimore Orioles, Yankees and four other teams -- has been head baseball coach at his alma mater, St. John the Baptist in West Islip, for 17 years.
Jay Loviglio, 57 -- a second baseman in the 1980s for the Phillies, Chicago White Sox and Chicago Cubs -- just completed his first season as varsity baseball coach at Islip High School.
While the former pros said they'll never forget moments on the field -- signing autographs, hitting a game-winning homer, setting records -- education is where their hearts are now.
"That's why we're in this business -- for these kids," Grable said.
"In sports . . . at some point, that is going to end, and it can end real quick," Walker said. "Education," he tells his students, "you have forever."