The tires crunched over the gravel driveway leading to the condemned building on Old Quogue Road.
Here, on this quiet street in Riverhead, Miguel Maysonet's old life and budding future converged.
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He stepped out of the driver's seat of a gold Nissan Maxima owned by his brother and surveyed the rundown property that served as his childhood home for almost two decades. His eyes scanned the boarded-up doors that once were the entrance to a first-floor auto repair shop. His gaze then followed the row of broken second-floor windows, where there used to be three small apartments. There on the right, he pointed, was his room -- a tiny safe haven from the drug-infested neighborhood that had surrounded him.
This building is where it all began: where the Puerto Rico-born Maysonet, who emigrated to the United States at 3½, shared a cramped apartment with his mother and two brothers; where he showered using just a bucket and hot water; where he first began dreaming of a better life.
"Seeing all the positive things that came out of the situation I was forced to live with, I think it made me a better person and it made me cherish the things I have in life," the former Stony Brook running back, 23, said recently.
Wearing the black warm-up jacket with red piping he received at the NFL scouting combine in February, Maysonet recounted memories from his past while looking toward his potentially bright future -- a future, he hopes, that involves the NFL.
In a few days, Maysonet -- the runner-up for the Football Championship Subdivision's Walter Payton Award, a running back who rushed for 5,110 yards and 51 touchdowns in his college career despite averaging only 16 carries a game -- could become the first Stony Brook football player to be drafted.
Having earned high praise from ESPN draft experts Mel Kiper Jr. and Todd McShay, Maysonet is projected to be picked anywhere from the fourth to seventh round during the three-day event, which begins Thursday. But he insisted he's not worried about where he'll land.
"Even if I don't get drafted, someone's going to want to take a chance on me," Maysonet said.
A mother's love
His goal is earning respect -- not only for himself but for his hometown of Riverhead and for Long Island football. But above all else, Maysonet is striving to provide for the person who sacrificed so he could succeed: his mother.
Yolanda Santana, 48, held down multiple jobs after arriving in the United States in 1993 from her native Puerto Rico. She rotatated shifts at Pizza Hut and Wendy's and as a housekeeper at a Riverhead hotel. Until recently, she worked at the hotel from 8 a.m. until 4 p.m. before beginning her 5 p.m. to 2 a.m. shift at Wendy's. But Maysonet's mother, who received a $1 raise (up from $10 an hour) from the hotel just a couple of months ago, quit her Wendy's job because "it was too much for me.''
"I had to be on time," Santana, who also is the hotel's assistant manager on Saturdays and Thursdays, said through a Newsday interpreter. "I didn't want them to fire me. It was the only income we had. I had to do it to be able to survive.''
For much of his life, it was just Miguel and his mother in that cramped apartment with the slanted roof on Old Quogue Road. But they eventually were kicked out when the building was condemned.
"We didn't really have anywhere else to go," Santana said.
But through those difficult times, a tight-knit bond was forged between Miguel, whom the family affectionately calls "Mickey," and his mother.
"Too close," Santana said, laughing. "If I'm not calling him, he's calling me. Even though he's 23, he's still my baby."
And while she worked, athletics became Maysonet's outlet.
"Sports were honestly my way out," said Maysonet, who lettered in football, track, lacrosse and basketball at Riverhead High. "And that's the way I was able to cope with things."
He was the 2008 Hansen Award winner (given to Suffolk County's top football player), the 2009 New York State Gatorade Player of the Year and a member of the 12-0 Blue Waves team that won a Long Island championship his senior year. Schools such as Syracuse and UConn recruited him, he said, but to play cornerback.
Maysonet ultimately chose Hofstra and spent one semester on campus before the Pride's football program was eliminated after the 2009 season. And when it came time to choose another school, he again decided to stay close to home and transferred to Stony Brook.
"My mom loves to watch me play," said Maysonet, who now lives in a modest home on Delores Avenue with Santana, his brother Luis, 27, Luis' girlfriend and the couple's 3½-year-old daughter. "She'll sit home and Google my name all the time. It's pretty funny."
Maysonet, who rushed for 1,964 yards and scored 23 total touchdowns in 2012, has become a hometown hero. "A lot of kids don't believe they can do anything like that," said Quinn Funn, 17, a Riverhead High School senior football player who grew up across the street from Maysonet. "So he's just showing them."
Strangers often stop Maysonet to offer their congratulations -- whether on campus, on the streets of Riverhead or at public urinals.
"I was in the bathroom in Madison Square Garden and . . . someone taps me on my shoulder," said Maysonet, who, at the time, was wearing a sweatshirt with his name on the back. "The guy's like, 'Do you know him?' and I said, 'I'm him.'
"He was like, 'Oh my God, you're great! You played my high school back when you were at Riverhead!' . . . That was pretty cool.''
Attention has followed Maysonet ever since he was in middle school, but his humility and "impeccable work ethic" have remained to this day, said Riverhead coach Leif Shay.
During his first week of training at New Jersey's TEST Football Academy, Maysonet said he suffered a "significant" hamstring tear that resulted in his getting a platelet-rich plasma shot and a cortisone shot before the combine. Though unable to run the 40-yard dash in Indianapolis, he impressed the 25 NFL teams that attended his Pro Day a month later by posting unofficial times of 4.45, 4.49 and 4.56. Since then, he's worked out for the Patriots, Giants and Jets.
"You're not really surprised when he does special things but you're just amazed at his ability to do it," Shay said of Maysonet, who, according to Santana, is the only member of the family to graduate high school. The running back is on pace to graduate college in May.
Said Shay, "For him to grow up there, with the drugs and everything else that was going on around him, to have that intestinal fortitude to stay away from it, you have to respect him."
Maysonet hopes the NFL will do just that.
"I'm living proof that it doesn't matter where you come from," he said, "as long as you really believe you can do it."
With Bart Jones