Mike LaDonna was in Florida on a family vacation several years ago when his brother noticed something on a store shelf. It was a hat, almost identical to one that Carolina Panthers quarterback Cam Newton once sported in a postgame news conference.
LaDonna, the West Islip quarterback who seized the spotlight in Suffolk II with his quick feet and on-field awareness last year, has always idolized Newton. He’s modeled his game around him, watched hours of clips and analyzed every fashion choice and, now, with his senior season in full swing, LaDonna is determined to emulate his idol.
Even if he hasn’t worn the hat anywhere yet.
“It’s just all of his swag,” LaDonna said of Newton’s appeal. “How he plays, the way he leads on the field. He’s jumping over people, running over people. He’ll do anything to win.”
LaDonna has done his best to follow in Newton’s footsteps. Literally. Though he is not afraid to throw the ball downfield, he is at his best when he’s moving, following his blockers through thin rushing lanes and dodging opposing defenders.
In his first four games this year, LaDonna carried the ball 62 times for 568 yards and eight touchdowns. He averaged just over nine yards every time he touched the ball. LaDonna didn't slow down on Saturday, leading West Islip to a 56-14 victory over Half Hollow Hills East. He ran for 90 yards and two touchdowns on three carries, and went 3-for-3 through the air for 62 yards and three more touchdowns.
The 6-foot, 195-pound LaDonna is the spark that makes the West Islip offense go and the team is more than happy to let him shoulder that kind of offensive responsibility.
“In our game [two weeks ago], we had 250 yards of total offense and 197 yards for Mike,” said West Islip coach Steve Mileti. “He really is a stallion. He’s a kid that you want the ball in his hands. He just gets away from other people.”
LaDonna said he has always wanted the responsibility that comes with being the leader of his team and he’s rarely backed down from a challenge. He faced one this summer, suffering an injury during baseball season that kept him sidelined for weeks.
That didn’t change LaDonna’s mindset.
Instead, he started working with his teammates, watching film and going over plays, long before the first snap of the first practice. After coming up short of a title last year, LaDonna wasn’t going to waste a single offseason moment — even if he couldn’t do more than point out blocking schemes on tape.
“I’ve been playing with these kids my whole life and this is my last season,” said LaDonna, whose team went 8-2 last year and falling short in the county title game. “I just want to win a championship.”
LaDonna’s dedication hasn’t gone unnoticed. He’s the first two-time captain in West Islip history, according to Mileti, and the team has already rallied around him.
“It says a lot about him,” Mileti said. “He’ll just kind of point to himself and say, ‘Let me get this thing rolling.’ It’s something you won’t ever say no to because when he says it, he gets it done.”
LaDonna said he doesn’t feel any pressure when he steps onto the field. If anything, he wants the pressure. He wants to be the guy, to make the difference when it matters most, and something clicks for him as soon as he puts his helmet on.
LaDonna, who will play baseball at New York Tech next year, has done a good job of beginning his own legacy. It is one he hopes will also inspire the next generation of West Islip football players.
“I’ll do anything for my team to win the game,” LaDonna said. “You just get an adrenaline rush. There’s nothing else like it.”