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'Necessary Roughness' real-life doc from LI

Sports psychotherapist (and Commack native) Donna Dannenfelser, whose

Sports psychotherapist (and Commack native) Donna Dannenfelser, whose life is the basis for the new USA network drama "Necessary Roughness." It premieres June 29, 2011.

It began with a Newsday headline that caught Donna Dannenfelser's eye as she waited in line for coffee, something about how the Jets were having trouble focusing -- a common problem for them in the 1990s.

"I said, 'Wow, my therapy program can help them,' " she recalled.

The psychotherapist reached out to the team and soon, she said, she was working with Jets players and later players from other NFL teams and other sports.

Eventually, it all led to this: at 10 p.m. Wednesday, USA Network will premiere "Necessary Roughness," a scripted show based on Dannenfelser's experiences.

Five years after leaving Long Island -- she is a Commack South alum -- for California and a new career in show biz, she is a producer on a show whose pilot episode has been given a prime, 75-minute chunk of cable TV real estate.

In a word: surreal.

"What's really surreal is having a desire to get my story out there, then actually witnessing hundreds of people working on a project that has been inspired by my life," she said.

Particularly strange has been watching Callie Thorne portray her, complete with a Long Island accent, even though the actress is from (gasp) the Boston area.

"I think she is brilliant," Dannenfelser said. "She makes me feel proud of being me. Sometimes she plays me better than I play myself."

Like most shows based on true stories, there is much dramatic license in "Necessary Roughness."

"I did not sleep my way into the NFL, and my husband didn't have 10 girlfriends," she said.

And because of the confidential nature of the job, all of the athletes' stories are heavily fictionalized, including that of the volatile New York Hawks wide receiver central to the pilot.

But Dannenfelser said the scene in which the receiver becomes agitated and confrontational is true to life.

"There were quite a few athletes that wanted to trash my office," she said, "but I always felt, knock down that wall, because the team is going to replace it, and it might also be better-looking after it's done.

"Even though they were large human beings and very, very angry and threatening, I just held fast."

Dannenfelser's brother, Joe Sabatino, played professional American football in Italy and is a longtime actor, so he was able to advise her on multiple career levels.

The rest has been a product of gumption and relentlessness. It took seven years from the inception of the idea to shooting the pilot.

"I left everything and bought into a dream I had," said Dannenfelser, who still practices psychotherapy on a limited basis. "I never took 'no' for an answer, and the rest is history."

She declined to give any details about her time working with the Jets, including the precise years she did so.

But she spoke in general terms, saying, "I was amazed by them. First, I couldn't believe how big they were . . . But everything you and I go through, they go through. It's just they're under a microscope.

"It doesn't matter who you are or what you do, we all want to be loved and respected for who we are, not what we do."


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