With a lump in his throat and a tear in his eye, Malcolm Pridgeon took a deep breath and began describing the worst of times in his young life.
"I was 11 when my dad died of a heart attack," Pridgeon, 18, a blue-chip offensive tackle and defensive end at Central Islip, said haltingly of James Earl Pridgeon. "A couple of years later, my mom had a heart attack and a stroke at the same time and was in a coma. And then . . . "
At that point, the 6-7, 280-pound senior paused to compose himself.
"It's OK, buddy; it's OK," his coach, Joe Taormina, said affectionately, patting his star player on the leg and encouraging him to go on.
Pridgeon recalled not being involved with sports until shortly after his mother was stricken when he was 13. Sports became a cure for his distress, an escape from the harsh realities of life that made him grow up quickly.
"Not that he was in trouble then, but he was at a time in his life where he could've gone down the wrong path," Taormina said. "Sports helped him take the right road."
Pridgeon said he lacked direction and motivation early in his junior high days. "Coach T and the other coaches grabbed me and told me to stay focused. They said, 'Go to school, play sports, get in the weight room.' I needed that," Pridgeon said. "Sports changed things for me. I could take out my anger on the field."
Pridgeon is shy and soft-spoken yet is an active team captain who can be vocal as well as lead by example.
"We made him captain as a junior because he was more mature than most of the other kids," Taormina said. "Even in a tough season like last year , we put him in the front of the line and the other kids started following him. When he talks, they listen -- not out of fear but because he does the right thing."
Pridgeon, who harbors NFL dreams, is strongly motivated to succeed for himself and for his family. His mother, Peggy, resides at Berkshire Nursing Home in West Babylon. He lives with his sister, Kalisha, 32, and his brothers Jason, 31, and Tywron, 19.
"My mom is doing great right now," Pridgeon said, his eyes lighting up. "She visits us on weekends and she's very proud of me. She doesn't come to many of my games, but I have her watch the videos. Sometimes she doesn't understand what I do, but she's always saying, 'You're the biggest guy on the field.' And she has a picture of me on her wall."
Ah, yes, "The Picture.'' Pridgeon and four other outstanding Long Island linemen -- Seaford's James O'Hagan, Long Beach's Tariq Cole, Oceanside's James Kretkowski and Mount Sinai's Bryan Reed -- were photographed together wearing stylish outfits for a centerfold in Newsday's high school football preview edition on Sept. 1.
The picture has made quite a splash in Pridgeon's life. Not only has his mom proudly displayed it where she lives, but several teachers have posted it in their classrooms. His teammates praised the way he looked that day. "It was a fun day," Pridgeon said. "The five of us were bragging about how good we looked. It made me feel good because it shows something positive about Central Islip.''
Every Central Islip opponent must know where Pridgeon is at all times. Against Half Hollow Hills West, Pridgeon ran down a ballcarrier, showing exceptional mobility for a player his size. "I was watching them on film and I was surprised just how fast he is," Whitman coach Robin Rosa said.
Rosa got a firsthand look Sept. 21 during Central Islip's 14-13 victory over Whitman. Pridgeon had a dominant game at defensive end. "He made two plays running down the line of scrimmage and catching my running back from behind," Rosa said. "The kid has got a tremendous motor on both sides of the ball, but especially on defense."
Colleges believe Pridgeon, an All-County player as a junior, is well-suited for success at the next level. He shined at big-man camps last spring. According to Taormina, Temple and Connecticut have offered scholarships and Syracuse, Rutgers and Buffalo have shown strong interest.
With good reason.
"He's a dominant player on both sides of the ball. An amazing athlete," said Hills West coach Kyle Madden, whose Colts beat the Musketeers, 10-6, in Week 1. "He chased some of our people down sideline to sideline, and we're pretty fast. He has the tools for the next level. He had a sense of urgency on every single down. I could see he was a leader."
Taormina sees the whole picture. "He's got tremendous athleticism and flexibility and a great motor,'' he said. "That's what colleges want. They want long arms and long legs and the ability to move laterally. He can pack on more weight. He'll be even better in college when there are other big men to knock him around in practice. I think he's a Division I football player."
Pridgeon said he has a 2.6 grade-point average but needs to boost his SAT scores for admission to those Football Bowl Subdivision schools. To that end, he said, he takes SAT prep classes three days a week.
"Because of what happened in his life, he's matured quickly," Taormina said. "He's had to make a lot of decisions on his own. The drive is there, the dedication is there, the work ethic is there, the attitude is there. He's a high-character kid, the kind that everyone roots for."
The tragic events of Pridgeon's youth remain a powerful presence in his life. He choked up again when he said, "Knowing my dad passed away and my mom is sick . . . It's motivating to me in the weight room and on the field. It makes me want to push myself."
After a big tackle or a sack, he sometimes looks up to the sky. Said Pridgeon, "I'm thinking about my dad."