Mikey Josefak does not serve like most tennis players. But most tennis players are not like Mikey Josefak.
The 18-year-old Connetquot senior, born with cerebral palsy, plays varsity tennis, needing only the help of a brace on his right ankle and right hand.
“I can compete with other people,” he said, “and I can just do what the other people can do.”
Soccer. Basketball. Hockey. Football. You name it, Mikey has played it.
“Nothing stopped him,” said friend Teddy Mazza, 17, who met Mikey in PAL football 10 years ago. “He was our running back for a while.”
His father, Mike, and his mother, Donna, remember hoping for the best and fearing the worst when Mikey, their first child, was five months old and his right hand’s natural position was a fist.
The doctors told the couple that Mikey had suffered an in-utero stroke, which left him with cerebral palsy. The neurological disorder, they said, would permanently impair his right side.
“It was the most devastating day of my life,” Donna said. “I’ll never forget it.”
Mikey has taken medication to prevent seizures since having one in first grade, his parents said. Five years ago, he had reconstructive surgery on his right hip. “None of it affects me,” Mikey said.
It never has.
When Mikey couldn’t pedal his tricycle with equal force on both sides, his grandfather adjusted the pedals to stabilize his right foot and evenly distribute the impact, Donna said. When he played tee ball as a 4-year-old, he learned to tuck his glove like one-handed former major-leaguer Jim Abbott so he could both field and throw with his left hand.
So there was no chance Mikey would sulk when he got cut from Oakdale-Bohemia Middle School’s baseball team as a seventh-grader. He simply picked up a tennis racket, volleyed with his father and, in time, learned to play a new sport.
“It didn’t take that long,” Mikey said. “Maybe a couple of days.”
In ninth grade, Mikey, of Oakdale, made Connetquot’s junior varsity team. Varsity tennis coach Ryan Cavanagh spoke with Donna and guaranteed that Mikey would always have a spot in the program.
“You think you’re going to do him a favor by keeping him around,” Cavanagh said, “but you don’t realize the favor he’s doing for you in your life and teaching you about the value of hard work and dedication.”
Mikey’s confident backhand and crafty slice produced a 13-0 record in first and second singles for Connetquot’s JV team last year. He won a 2 1⁄2-hour match in which each set ended with a tiebreaker. “Eventually Mikey took one spike to end it,” Mazza said. “That’s my fondest memory.”
This year, Cavanagh intended to start Mikey in varsity doubles, reducing the space on the court he would have to cover. But Mikey wanted to play singles.
“And he went out and beat my No. 4 guy in tryouts,” Cavanagh said, beaming with pride.
“He beat me fair and square,” said teammate David Arndts, 17. “He’s got great sportsmanship. I was almost happy to see him win, in a way. Of course I wanted to win because I wanted to hold my spot, but I respect him as a player and I respect him as a friend, too.”
Mikey advanced to the second round of Suffolk’s singles tournament. He finished with a 7-11 record, but that mattered less than the fact that he had a record at all.
“He makes us stronger,” his father said. “He could complain about things, sit in his room and say, ‘I can’t do it. I can’t do it.’ He inspires me. If I’m going through something and think I can’t do this, I think of him.”
And that’s why Mikey wants to share his story. He remembers the letter Abbott sent him years ago, encouraging him to “keep playing and never quit.” He understands he can have a similar impact on others.
“I knew it since I was a little kid that I had this disease,” he said. “I thought I could share it with the world and it would let other people with CP try sports or do what they don’t feel like they could do.”
His inspiration impacts others every day. “He drives the rest of us to play harder and makes us want to live up to his expectations,” Mazza said. “He’s going out and showing us the way. We’ve just got to follow him.”
“You think you’re going to do him a favor by keeping him around, but you don’t realize the favor he’s doing for you in your life and teaching you about the value of hard work and dedication.”
— Connetquot tennis coach Ryan Cavanagh