It was a cloudless, sun-drenched Saturday afternoon in Sayville. East Islip softball coach Jason McGowan stood in front of his home and checked his phone. It was 2:30 p.m.
He should have been relaxing after a three-hour morning practice with his team. But high schools were closed in mid-March and administrators canceled spring sports for Suffolk and Nassau schools on April 21 because of health and safety concerns tied to COVID-19. So instead, McGowan prepared for a two-hour bike ride to visit a pair of his East Islip players.
McGowan, 47, has made 17 trips from his home in Sayville since early April and has delivered motivational notes to family members, friends, former Bellport teammates and coaches, and current and past East Islip softball players. He has ridden about 273 miles to East Patchogue, Bellport, Bohemia, Blue Point, Brookhaven Hamlet and East Islip.
When McGowan gets to his destination, he drops off the notes written by two of his daughters, Renee, 13, and Jayde, 10. Recently, the entire McGowan family began painting and writing inspirational messages on rocks.
“People need it,’’ Renee said. “They have to keep going.”
McGowan has visited former Bellport classmates such as Tim Brower (McGowan’s first stop on April 6), Jeff Cipp (the Longwood football head coach), Eric Repper, Brian Satterley, Anthony Pedatella, Nelson Thomas, Pete Kamran and Tony Pino.
“It’s a great time to think out there on my bike,” said McGowan, a special education teacher at Amityville for 20 years. “It feels good visiting my old teammates, coaches and former players . . . and reconnecting with them.”
Satterley said he received a painted rock that read: “Good Vibes” on one side and “Bellport, NY” on the other. He added that he put his rock on the mantel of his fireplace.
McGowan also has seen former Bellport coaches Leroy Still and Chris Baumann.
“That rock is one of my most precious things that I have right now. It will always mean a lot to me,” said Baumann, who lives in McGowan’s old neighborhood, within walking distance of Bellport High School. “He’s taking time out of his day to ride from Sayville to here, and that’s no small task.”
McGowan and his fiancee, Tiffany Rowan, a Sayville physical education teacher and varsity softball coach, have done online workouts with their teams since schools closed in mid-March.
Afterward, the couple puts their two toddlers — Laney, 3 1⁄2 and Stella, 21 months — down for naps around 2:30 p.m. Then McGowan prepares for his almost daily trek.
McGowan cranked out an 8.35-mile trip from Sayville to East Islip in 37 minutes (a brisk 13.5 miles per hour) that even included a quick Dunkin’ stop on Saturday before visiting senior Lauren Crawford.
The ninth-year East Islip coach delivered a birthday card (Crawford turned 18 on Friday), a softball shirt and two decorated rocks to his second baseman. He later returned some equipment, along with a painted rock, to junior Ashley Fuchsman.
“This shows how much he actually cares,” Crawford said. “It just shows how good of a person he is.”
Those good feelings flow throughout the McGowan home. All family members, including 15-year-old son Trey and even the toddlers, have helped paint the rocks.
“It’s nice that he can brighten someone’s day,” Jayde said, “and make his friends happy during this hard time.”
McGowan believes this is his family’s time to help others who have supported the McGowans the last few years.
“We’ve had a ton of family members and friends that have had our backs since Laney was diagnosed [in 2017] with Dravet syndrome,” McGowan said.
(Dravet syndrome is a rare, drug-resistant epilepsy, with prolonged seizures, that begin in infants and last throughout their lives, according to the Epilepsy Foundation website, epilepsy.com).
“This is a little way for us to pay it back,” added McGowan, who hopes to continue his bike trips for the foreseeable future. “To be on the other end of it and to show that we care.”
Message by message. Mile by mile.