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Resourceful Mills broke barriers at Islip, Hofstra, made huge imprint at Wyandanch

Wyandanch wrestling coach Ray Mills, right, shows some

Wyandanch wrestling coach Ray Mills, right, shows some moves to his team even though they won't be allowed to compete this season. (April 18, 2003) Photo Credit: freelance/Howard Schnapp

About 15 feet from the entrance of Ray Mills' home, on a wall to the right, above a chest of drawers crammed with awards and certificates and centered between photos of his three children, is a large portrait of his grandparents. It's coincidental, but quite fitting.

It was Herbert and Amy Mills who provided the foundation from which Ray has built his legacy. That's 32 years of teaching English and 27 years of coaching at Wyandanch. And in 2008, he became the fourth African-American inducted into the Long Island Metropolitan Lacrosse Foundation Hall of Fame.

Those accomplishments, in a way, were a product of struggle and inconvenience.

Mills, 57, spent the first six years of his life in rural Florida and still has memories of segregation. He and his older brother, Chester, moved to Islip to live with their grandparents after their father, who was in the Air Force, won custody of them but was stationed abroad.

Their grandfather was a landscaper, and their abode - the one he still resides in - was more than humble. It started as a one-room house before gradually expanding. The brothers were the first African-Americans to integrate the Islip school district.

"The teachers didn't discriminate," said Mills, a two-year retiree who now coaches junior-high wrestling, "but it was difficult in that we had the southern drawl and a lot of the other kids hadn't seen a black person before. That made them reluctant to open up at first."

The solution, his grandparents said, was to excel. "My grandmother would stress, 'You can't be as good; you have to be better,' " he said. "Adversity couldn't be an excuse. You had to do your best with what you had."

That meant homework being a priority, good grades a requirement, and work coming at the expense of playtime.

Through it, Mills thrived. "As we got better academically and in sports," he said, "we were just Ray and Chester and not 'the black kids.' "

Mills starred as a four-sport athlete in high school and went to Hofstra on a football scholarship, eventually joining the lacrosse team. There he received All-American honors in 1975 and became the team's first black captain. But perhaps Mills' most indelible mark was made as the Wyandanch wrestling coach.

In 1982, he took over a team that was short on funding and athletes. With just six wrestlers, the Warriors forfeited most of the weight classes and team success was sparse. As well, conditions were never optimal and the team often didn't have access to the gymnasium because of afternoon basketball practice.

But they made do, by any means necessary. "We turned the second-floor hallway of Milton Olive [Middle School] into our gym," Mills said. "It wasn't always pleasant, but the kids had to adapt."

Sprints, wheelbarrow exercises, push-ups, etc. - all in the hallway - until the gym cleared out late in the evening.

They raised funds for uniforms and wrestling camps by doing "lift-a-thons" - workouts for which students and parents pledged a penny per rep.

"Looking back, just seeing all the stuff we had to do for results, it made us better," said James Crawford, a former wrestler who now teaches social studies and coaches at Boys & Girls High School. "Ray was a role model and he kept us focused."

The hardship wrought championships: William Crawford earning their first county title in 1989 and Russell Jones winning the 152 weight class in a national tournament and James Crawford winning counties in '95 and Thomas Marrero winning state titles in '96 and '97.

"Wrestling was never a popular sport here, but he made the program phenomenal," Wyandanch athletic director Kenneth McCloud said. "He was able to give everyone attention and instruction, and I think that's the main reason those guys were successful."

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