Joe Percival was speechless. The recent St. Anthony's High School graduate was caught off guard late Wednesday when he learned he had been selected as the first recipient of the Marcus A. Henry Award, presented by Newsday to Long Island's top high school student-citizen-athlete.
He was further humbled Saturday when he accepted the crystal award in a presentation inside the chapel at St. Anthony's High School in South Huntington. Percival was beaming as he stood flanked by his guardian, Deirdre Castellanos of Dix Hills, and John McCree, the school's associate athletic director.
"This is truly an honor to accept this award," Percival said. "I am blessed to be standing here with this award -- it's beautiful. I read about all the other finalists and they were also deserving. It's good to see so many people doing the right thing."
The award is named for Newsday sports reporter Marcus A. Henry, a man who loved sports and also was a community leader and a dedicated journalist. He died April 1 at the age of 41.
Percival, who will attend Princeton and play football in the fall, exemplified the qualities of Henry, who was deeply involved in community affairs and with his church.
"I have heard so many wonderful things about Marcus Henry, in particular, his desire to serve humanity,'' said Brother Gary Cregan, principal at St. Anthony's High School. "I also agree that Joe Percival of St. Anthony's is similar in many respects.
"The only way to describe Joe Percival is to use a religious term. Joe Percival is a saint, someone that exercises heroic virtue.
"In four years, I've observed the kind of heroic virtue that you would not expect a young man to have. But he has courage beyond imagination. His mom is very sick and he has had to raise himself and raise his younger brother and never once does he ever look anywhere but forward and toward God. It's such an honor for him to be the first recipient of this award."
Percival, a first-team Newsday All-Long Island football selection, was a powerful presence at defensive end as the Friars marched to the CHSFL title. He confirmed that because of his extraordinary combination of size (he's 6-3, 220 pounds), speed and strength, Princeton will move him to an outside linebacker position.
So how does a man who is viewed as soft-spoken and gentle turn to beast mode on the football field? Percival laughed at the question.
"You know people ask me about playing physical," he said. "You have to turn it on to be competitive. That's just football. And you have to know when to turn it off. I've had an amazing experience at St. Anthony's and they've helped me develop the right focus in everything I do -- on the field and off of it."
Percival excelled in track during the spring, taking first place in the CHSAA league championships in the 100, 200 and 4 x 100 meters. At the insistence of McCree, he will inquire about running track at Princeton.
"He is an absolutely special runner," McCree said. "He should continue in college if the football coaches allow him to do so."
That would make Castellanos very happy. Percival's guardian ran track at Norman Thomas High School in Manhattan and then for Baruch College. She and her husband, Ralph Castellanos, have guardianship of Percival and his younger brother Justin.
"He's a very special young man," she said. "And his brother is following in his footsteps."
Percival made the school's National Honor Society and plays the piano in the St. Anthony's band. He also is the youth minister for Bread of Life Church in Wyandanch, where he helps organize the soup kitchen.
"The things I do outside the school in the community I do for love and they are part of God's work," Percival said. "I don't do it for the recognition. We serve food to people from Freeport all the way out to the Hamptons. It makes me feel great to help them out."
Percival also finds the time to do extensive work as a youth minister.
"It's important to teach young people what is right and how to succeed," he said. "We all need guidance when we're young. Where would I be without Deirdre and her love and guidance and all the people at St. Anthony's?"
Cregan said it is typical of Percival to reach out and help others. He is so mild-mannered that he was the perfect role model for incoming freshmen.
"I thought here's this big, strapping guy who could be intimidating but is instead a very warm and friendly role model," Cregan said. "He's always happy, always smiling. He was the perfect guy to help young freshmen have courage and be encouraged."
Percival clutched the award as Castellanos beamed and hugged him.
"Great day, huh," she said.