Rafael Rajo propelled Suffolk Community College to the NJCAA soccer championship last season. Now he has become an inspiration to his former teammates, who are trying to deal with his loss.
His life ended two months ago, at 21, in an automobile accident.
"The great strength that we have that other teams do not have is that we want to do it again for someone that we loved,'' said former teammate Alpha Diallo, a sophomore.
Diallo last spoke with Rajo, a graduate of Lindenhurst High School, the day before the single-car accident on Wellwood Avenue, just two blocks from his home. Suffolk Police said the road was damp and Rajo's car hit a utility pole and flipped over.
At the time of his death, Rajo was preparing to attend Dowling as a junior.
"We were expecting big things from him,'' Dowling coach John DiRico said. Rajo was less than a season removed from his starring role at Suffolk, having scored the winning goal in the Region 15 final that sent Suffolk to the nationals, then scoring the only goal in the national semifinal against five-time champion Richland (Texas).
After that game, he phoned his mother, Yolanda Enamorado. "He said 'Mom, you don't know how happy I am.' I said 'You don't have to tell me, I feel it, too.' My husband [Maximo Suarez] told him at the funeral, 'You know what, you win this time. You always wanted to be No. 1 and you were No. 1.'''
When Rajo set his sights on Dowling, the midfielder had another goal in mind, his mom said. "He wanted a championship with Dowling this year,'' always a possibility for the Division II power.
Charles Paracat, who played alongside Rajo last year, is now at Dowling. "He inspires me in so many ways, I just carry him with me wherever I go now,'' Paracat said. "It was both of us coming here, we were going to try to get another ring. I'm going take the relationship we had and try to do that with everybody.''
Rajo relished the national title at Suffolk. "He lived to get that [championship] ring,'' Suffolk teammate Rick Rada said.
Rajo's mother now has the ring. "That's my treasure,'' she said.
Rada added, "You don't know what is going to happen tomorrow. He was so excited to start at a new school. He deserved what was coming for him.''
Rajo started his collegiate soccer career at St. Francis in Brooklyn, but later came back home and enrolled at Suffolk.
"A great kid, everyone loved him,'' Suffolk coach Frank Vertullo said. "He had an aura about him, he really made a difference. When it was time to get serious, you wanted him on your side.''
Suffolk's Ryan Murphy agreed. "He was always one to push you, make you better whether it was soccer or class. We definitely as a team cherish the championship more because we lost one of our brothers. Now this year, we are saying 'This one's for Rafa.' ''