The man on stage had no legs, but was an elite wrestler at East Islip High School and Penn State University and is now benching 350 pounds or so, gunning for a powerlifting medal in the next Paralympics.
That was a tough act to follow. Most speakers at the Hyatt Regency in Hauppauge Monday for the first-ever Believe Symposium, an event created to inspire Long Island high school students, followed his arc nonetheless. Their stories were about misspent youth or dyslexia or drug-addicted parents, obstacles overcome through perseverance and hard work, and the success that followed.
"Believe in yourselves," said 26-year-old ex-wrestler Rohan Murphy.
"In order to be successful, surround yourself with successful people," said Mark Badami, 42, a financial planner.
"Every single day, people tell me no," said William Corbett, 43, a public relations man. "But there's always tomorrow, and you can try it again. And try it again."
The message was not lost on some of the 400 high school students in attendance.
"I'm going to be the first one in my family to graduate from high school," said Baldwin High senior Loida Viera. "I know that there are people out there with worse situations than me, but seeing and knowing are different things. I think today, hearing these stories, can give me a little push," she said.
Walter Mason, her classmate, said he already had role models in his life. "I see people around me - my parents, my grandparents - they're not rich, but they own their own house, two cars, they already sent two children to college and I'm on my way next year."
But when talk turned to the grim job market, everyone agreed inspiration was in short supply. "I'm terrified," said Jessica Dian, another Baldwin senior, who hopes to become an art teacher but knows teaching jobs are hard to find.
Some weren't sure they'd move back to Long Island after college. Badami winced hearing that. He said he was an aimless kid who became a family man with a business, an Island lifer. "It can be a powerhouse again," he said, "like it was 20 years ago, but we need the people."