On a rapidly fading day in late January, Tommy Sheehan is easy to pick out of the crowd. All too easy — this is a crowd of 8-year-olds.
Floral Park-Bellerose School, where he teaches 4th grade, has just let out and the kids are filing to the buses. Sheehan stands over by a double door beckoning a reporter. He's in his natural element here, but the element you may know him from is TV, standing on the beach of Fiji's Mana Island, enveloped by greens, azures, with the infinity pool of the South Pacific stretching off to, well, infinity.
A little over a month earlier, Sheehan had won the 39th season of "Survivor," so by this point, he's heard all the jokes about how "a million bucks doesn't go far on this island." (After taxes, it comes to about $572,000.) He smiles politely when he hears yet another.
He's also heard all the questions about whether "Survivor" has "changed" him. What's so surprising is how little changed Sheehan is in person. TV has a way of amplifying people, reality shows a way of exploiting that effect. Not Sheehan: Tall, rangy, his hair is blazing red, his beard too. He's the Tormund Giantsbane — "Game of Thrones," but you knew that — of Bellerose School, although much better groomed.
Winning "hasn't changed me at all," he says. "I do get recognized now and then, but also get asked 'oh you won a million dollars, are you still going to be a teacher?' I don't care if I won a hundred million dollars. I was coming back to teach that next day."
Sheehan, who lives in Long Beach, arrived back at Floral Park-Bellerose on Dec. 19, hours after the live finale.
If history is a reliable guide, winning "Survivor" — which returns for its 40th edition Wednesday (CBS/2, 8 p.m.) — is profitable but not necessarily life-altering. A few — like Sandra Diaz-Twine (winner of season 7 and 20) and Rob Mariano (22), who were consultants this past season — become repeat contestants. (Although this edition, "Winners at War," will feature 20 past winners.) Most just go back to their lives.
At least so far, Sheehan is one of those. After "Survivor" completed taping last April, he returned home to propose to his longtime girlfriend, Nicole Badillo — a pharmacist for Catholic Health Services in Melville who grew up in Northport — and to wrap up the school year, in that order.
It was back on Long Island where he decided to spring two surprises on the unsuspecting Badillo. After she went over to the family house in Bayville to set up a welcome home party — she had been told he'd be back the following day — Sheehan jumped from behind a bush, then got on one knee to propose. She accepted, then got the big news: "I just won a million dollars," he told her.
While the show's live finale was still eight months away, he rightly guessed he had all the jury votes needed to win but as far as friends, colleagues, students, and even his own mom and dad knew, he did not. With a flair for the dramatic and a puckish sense of humor, he kept everyone in the dark — everyone except, wisely enough, his future wife.
At 27, Sheehan is one of the rare "Survivor" winners who is not all that much older than the show itself. He was six at launch in 2000, and was immediately hooked. Every week, he and the rest of his family — his father, Tom and mother Sandy, both retired cops with the NYPD, and sister Caitlin, now a commodities trader in Manhattan — watched the show. But Sheehan studied it. Even as a teen, he convinced himself he could win.
Badillo convinced him to apply as a contestant. "He knows how he's perceived by others and also very, very self-aware" of that, she says. "He always knew what he was doing [on the show] but was able to compartmentalize. He knows it's a game and wasn't there to make friends."
Born in Maspeth, Queens, his family later moved out to Bayville, where he and Caitlin, now 29, were raised in a house in Bayville, where his parents still live. At Bayville Primary, just up the street, Sheehan was small for his age and became withdrawn after he was picked on. He struggled in school.
"I grew up in a beautiful town where I lifeguarded in he summers, had great parents, a great sister, a great life, but when I was really little, I felt dumb," he says. A now-revered teacher who has since moved to Florida "made me feel loved, feel special, even though I was the lowest [scoring] kid in class." Her influence was so profound that he too decided to become a 4th grade teacher. After graduating from SUNY Cortland, he ended up at Floral Park-Bellerose where he has taught for five years.
"Winning 'Survivor' hasn't changed him at all," says school principal Jamie Adams. "He still loves his kids. He's an amazing teacher and he goes over and above and beyond for each of them."
His classroom on the third floor of the Floral Park school has some "Survivor" memorabilia, evidence that a fan teaches there if not necessarily a winner. A purple banner emblazoned with the word "Vokai '' — the name of his "tribe" — hangs in one corner. A yellowed sheet with the "H.O.T. (high-order-thinking) question-of-the-day" reads, "what character trait does Mr. Sheehan have that make us think he WON Survivor?"
That sheet was pinned up last fall, long before his Dec. 18 victory, but a series of other posters around the room hint at those traits. One reads, "if you never try you'll never know," and another, "think positive and positive things will happen."
Indeed, spend any time with Sheehan, and you quickly arrive at the conclusion that his competitors on that far-distant island probably never stood a chance. He speaks with considerable authority about the show and its evolution — how it was once only about "alliances" but has since evolved into something more like a reality TV version of 3-D chess.
He is passionate, however, when the subject turns to school. Sheehan is a big guy, well over six feet, but when he describes his unique teaching style — cartwheels, impromptu performances on desks, dance routines — you begin to wonder what his diminutive audience must think. You strongly suspect they are rarely bored.
Sheehan insists he doesn't care much about the "Survivor" money, or what's left of it. What he does care about is his family ("we're super-close"), Nicole, and the "kids." Half of his students in the class of 23 are "special needs," which means reading and math proficiency levels vary.
"I want to give everyone who's coming into my class a clean slate," he says. "I don't care what trouble they may be having or what their grade point is. I say 'this is the new start of the rest of your life.' I love every single one of them and they know I truly do love them. If they know that, they'll fight that much harder, fight for me. Those kids with 'behavior problems' disappear. They want to do well for me because I want to do well for them. Discipline is nothing I have to worry about."
Sheehan's dad and sister have heard him say all this before. They also say that he doubled down when he got home from Fiji. "He's very well-grounded," says his father. "I'm not saying this because he's my son but he's a good young man and has a very good heart." When Sheehan got his CBS prize money, he promptly cut a check for his sister.
"I just got married, we're house-hunting, and he is helping with the down payment," she says. "That's what makes him him."
Sheehan will complete coursework this May that will allow him to become a school Principal or administrator eventually so that he can "move up the ranks to affect 900 kids' lives instead of just 23."
A little kid in Bayville once dreamed of becoming a 4th grade teacher and the winner of "Survivor." Two dreams down, one to go.