Giants offensive lineman Shane Olivea, of Cedarhurst, signs autographs after the...

Giants offensive lineman Shane Olivea, of Cedarhurst, signs autographs after the morning training camp practice at the University at Albany on July 28, 2008. Credit: Newsday/David L. Pokress

Shane Olivea was one of the kids who would come back.

It didn’t matter if he was capturing a national championship at Ohio State or helping the Chargers to their winningest regular season in franchise history. Olivea, the "gentle giant," somehow would find his way back to Lawrence High School, even though he played football there for only a year. He had friends there, community, and when the high school team didn’t have money for championship rings, Olivea opened up his wallet.

"Everyone gravitated toward him," said Pat Pizzarelli, Nassau County’s high school athletics executive director, who also served as athletic director at Lawrence for 25 years. "He was a big guy, but he was like a teddy bear. And I don’t think I ever saw him get angry. He didn’t get angry on the football field, but he was fierce, just a really good football player. Actually, coaches sometimes would try to get him angry, and he would smile."

Olivea, the Long Beach and Lawrence football standout who went on to excel for the Chargers and block for LaDainian Tomlinson’s record-setting season, died at the age of 40, the Chargers said Thursday. The cause of death was not announced.

Olivea, a 6-4, 312-pound offensive tackle, was a starter in all four seasons of his NFL career, and helped Tomlinson score his historic 28 rushing touchdowns in 2006. Olivea started in every game that year as the Chargers went 14-2 to capture the AFC West title.

His career eventually was derailed by opioid addiction and, years later, he used his experiences to speak out about the dangers of prescription pain medication and the specific way it ravages football players during and after their playing careers.

"I loved Shane," said Roman Oben, who played 12 years in the NFL and was traded from the Bucs to the Chargers in 2004, Olivea’s rookie year.

Oben now is the league’s vice president of football development. "He used to come over to my house and eat all the kids’ snacks,’’ he said. "My wife [Linda] loved him and treated him like a little brother.

"I was just devastated. When you spend that much time with someone — the meeting rooms, the locker rooms, the walk-throughs, the games — that’s something you can’t replace. To say you’ve spent that much time with someone and they’re no longer here, that’s the tough part about it."

Olivea began taking Vicodin for pain before the addiction blossomed, playing under the influence for his final 2 ½ seasons in the league, he told Newsday in 2015. At the time of the interview, he said he had been sober for six years.

"Pride, it’s one of those sins," Olivea said then. "Pride got me to the NFL, my pride got me out of the NFL . . . The game of football always came easy to me. The crazy thing is that the game of life kicked my [butt]."

Olivea started for Ohio State for all three years he attended the school, twice was named All-Big Ten second team and was taken by the Chargers in the seventh round of the 2004 draft (he originally was projected to go in the third round, but he strained a pectoral muscle right before the draft). He quickly made his name in the league, eventually signing a six-year, $20 million extension in 2006, making him one of the NFL’s best-paid tackles at the time.

"He was a seventh-round pick and ended up starting as a rookie," Oben said. "It showed you can leave Long Island and help a team get to 14-2 and win a division. That really started the Chargers’ run of being more relevant in football than they had been."

Olivea’s performance, hindered by drugs, began to suffer in 2007 and got him benched in the latter part of the season; he was released in February 2008 upon failing one drug test and missing another. Oben said that when his substance-abuse issues became apparent, Olivea reached out to him for help.

After an intervention, Olivea attended rehab in Rancho Mirage, California, in April 2008, intent on returning to football. He was signed by the Giants in July 2008 and Oben, retired and then doing radio for the team, felt Olivea’s talent stood out among the rest. A back injury, though, ended his comeback: Olivea was placed on season-ending injured reserve and released.

"You think about the people," Oben said. "You want to look back on your career and hope everyone’s OK. You just hope that, however many years you played in the league, it’s a good jump start. You hope you can manage the cliff dive of football being over and then your life improving because you played."

Olivea walked that path after his release from the Giants. In the next few years, he spoke candidly about his addiction, saying that, at its height, he was taking 125 Vicodin a day.

He hoped his story could be a warning to other players, many of whom take medication for pain management during their careers and some of whom battle the often silent disease long after their playing days are over.

At the end of 2015, he accomplished his personal goal of finishing his degree in communications at Ohio State.

"Having played in the NFL and also with my personal story, I could possibly help someone going down the wrong path," he told Newsday in 2015. "[I want to] allow them to see what can happen."

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