Thursday, April 24, 2014
By Chris Burrell
The Patriot Ledger
HANOVER, Mass. — By almost every measure, Michael Wolongevicz is not a guy you’d expect to play semi-pro football.
Mike Wolongevicz runs a drill with the Coastal Chiefs football team in Hanover, Mass. He’s 42 years old, just 5 feet seven inches tall and overcame what seemed like unsurvivable injuries a decade go. He’s also a force on the football field.
The Associated Press
He’s 5 feet 7 inches tall, weighs 175 pounds, and he’s 42, digging in against players half his age.
But the one number that would argue loudest against Wolongevicz suiting up and trotting onto the fields of the New England Football League is 110.
One hundred and ten is how many titanium screws surgeons drilled into the bones of his face after a near fatal injury.
“Every dot you see is a screw,” Wolongevicz said Tuesday afternoon, as he pointed to an X-ray of his face glowing from the screen of his laptop computer set on the dining room table of his split-level ranch in Hanover.
“Eyes, nose, mouth – they just have it zigzagging everywhere,” he said.
Ten years ago, Wolongevicz survived what sounds like an unsurvivable calamity when 9,600 pounds of granite slabs fell onto the side of his head, just above his left eye.
“My jaw was ripped off. My eye was down past my mouth,” said Wolongevicz, remembering the trauma that happened at a local granite company where he was working. “If I was any taller, I was decapitated.”
His neck was broken, and his face was crushed to a width of 27/8 inches, Wolongevicz said. And the damage also exacted a psychological toll.
“The first time I saw myself in the mirror was the most depressing moment in my life,” he said. “I was misshapen for almost a year. People started at me. It was horrible.”
Plastic surgery by Dr. Raffi Der Sarkissian in Quincy reconstructed most of his facial features and repaired much of the nerve damage.
Just over a year ago, old friends who played for the Coastal Chiefs – a Single-A team based in Hanover – recruited Wolongevicz.
Before joining up, he consulted Dr. Der Sarkissian.
“He shook his head, ‘You’re crazy,” ’ Wolongevicz said, recalling his surgeon’s response.
He was also assured that his face and neck were no more fragile than before the injury. So he donned pads and helmet and began to play organized football for the first time since he was a student at Hanover High School.
For Wolongevicz, the act of playing football again isn’t just a physical feat, but also an emotional one.
Back in high school, he was cut from the football team.
“The defensive head coach said, ‘You’re too small,”’ Wolongevicz said. “I didn’t finish (the season), and I had so much regret.”
More than two decades later, he is a first-string nose guard on the Chiefs’ defense, and he revels in his ability to outmaneuver and surprise the giant linemen he faces.
“We fly by the big guys,” said Wolongevicz, who plays alongside a teammate with a similarly unintimidating physique. “We drive the other teams mad.”
Wolongevicz has racked up four sacks this season, but the Chiefs are 0-7.
With a shortage of players and many sidelined with injuries, Wolongevicz played both offense and defense recently, subbing as a center on the offensive line.
“Other teams don’t know what to make of it,” he said. “One guy looked at me (and said), ‘What are you, the water boy?”’
His big brother, Steve Wolongevicz, also plays for the Chiefs and admits that family members worry about Mike playing such a high-contact sport after his injuries.
“He’s gone through a lot of adversity, but it makes him feel good,” said Steve, as the Chiefs began their practice during a recent night under the lights at Sylvester field in Hanover. “It’s getting that normalcy back, and that’s a good thing.”
Back home at Mike Wolongevicz’s house, there are ice packs lying around the dining room. Wolongevicz has been banged up this season, and there was still one game to go, but there’s no regret.
“Football’s awesome,” he said, smiling, “but it hurts.”