By the time Jamie Santiago was taking classes and playing football at Bulkeley High School in Hartford, Conn., Eric Mangini was out the door and his legend was growing.
"He actually graduated in June of '89 and I came in a few months later in September of '89. When I was coming up as a freshman, there was a lot of talk of Eric Mangini," said Santiago. "When he was playing at Wesleyan [and setting a school record with 36.5 sacks], we would see it in the papers.
"There was a lot of looking up to him, especially for a player like me. I wanted to set my standards and my goals to where he had them at and we were able to do that. He set the base for us and we were able to carry it on."
Graham Martin, the former head coach at Bulkeley, wouldn't let Santiago and his teammates forget Mangini. As a senior, Mangini received the Brian Piccolo Award for outstanding athletic and academic achievement and was also named both Athlete of the Year and Scholar Athlete of the Year.
"I had to make sure I lived up to somebody's standard there. Coach [Martin] wouldn't let us forget," Santiago said during the Jets' training camp workout today. "He wanted to let us know what we are shooting for. We were not known to be a very good school football-wise. In my freshman year, we were 1-10. We ended up turning that all around, but we used all the means and motivation we could to get everybody to buy into the program."
Santiago, now a supervisor in his ninth year at The Children's Home of Cromwell, and Mangini, in his second year at the Jets' helm, have both become leaders. This is the second consecutive summer Santiago has brought a group of Connecticut youths out to practice.
"We are a residential facility/group home in Connecticut," he said. "We service kids that are DCF [Department of Children and Families], paroled, probation kids from all over the state of Connecticut. We have anywhere from 8-year-olds to approximately 18-year-olds.
"These are kids that have lost their families, kids that have been taken away from their families and kids that have no family resources. These kids come and live with us whether it is voluntarily, court-ordered, or the state saying they need a place to live."
The Cromwell facility, located 15 minutes from Hartford, houses both girls and boys. Santiago was able to bring 18 kids to camp in 2006 and that number increased to 30 this year.
"Basically what we do is we become their parent for years," he said. "We have 72 residents. We take care of 20 girls and the rest are boys. We have two girls' houses and three boys' houses. We have our own on-campus school, an on-campus pool and all these other recreational things we do with them. But we pretty much take care of their daily life from waking them up in the morning to putting them to bed."
Though often told the past couple of seasons, the Mangini trek is no less extraordinary. He lost a father he idolized when he was just 16 and he grew up in a tough neighborhood full of perils and tears. He wasn't an upper-middle-class kid from the suburbs. Quite the contrary, he was a tough, inner-city kid who developed a never-say-quit work ethic and never accepted failure.
"A great success," Santiago said. "He is someone who has made it. He didn't become a product of society and the inner city. He chose to take different routes and work as hard as he could to be where he is at. He is a great role model for everybody, including the Hartford kids we have who really want to pay attention and understand what is going on. They are able see that 'I'm not stuck. I am not here and this is not where is my life is going to end.' They, too, have that opportunity to grow and prosper and be great."
After today's practice, Mangini stopped by to chat with the kids and his fellow Bulkeley alum. He even sent Laveranues Coles to the sidelines for a bonus.
"I hope he tells them where he came from, where you can go and everything can get better. The road in the future is bright if you want it to be," Santiago said of the coach's message. "He went from being an inner-city kid to going to a great college, coaching over in Australia, then coming back here and making it. That speaks well for him. If he is able to get that message over to them and let them understand that, then that is a great thing."
You might see the scowl on the sideline and hear the deadpan humor with the media, but all Santiago sees is the goodness flowing in Mangini's heart.
"He is a very generous man, a good-hearted person," Santiago said. "It's the way we were raised. We were born in the inner city and raised in the inner city, but we have hearts as big as the ocean. We are givers. That is the way he was raised, to be a person that is generous and caring. He plays the role real well on the football field, but we know he is a good man and he has a good heart."
Santiago plays his role well, too. His job is not easy. It is all-consuming and at times gut-wrenching. He is not coaching a game but coaching life and the stakes couldn't be any higher.
"It's hard for us because we have to send [the kids] back home into the environment they came from. If we save one, if we save two, if we save three, then we are doing what we are supposed to do," he said. "Every case we can't help, but every case we have to try our best to help and that's what I guess we try to do. If we give 110 percent, we expect 110 percent.
"It's a non-stop thing, it's 365 days a year. We don't have vacations and we don't have days off. There are no snow days in New England for us at The Children's Home. We are there morning, noon and night to make sure the successes are coming. It's hard because you have 72 kids and you have to make sure every one of them is being helped and reached and transformed into being able to return into society and be successful. That is our ultimate goal, always and forever."
A not-for-profit organization, sometimes the funds are hard to come by for The Children's Home of Cromwell. But today was an eventful one-day trip that was going to end at Bertucci's.
"We took a bus. We have actually moved up. Last year, we took a yellow school bus down," Santiago said. "This year we were able to get a Coach bus, which was better. We had more people and it would have been really hot and sticky on the school bus this year."
Even as the years go by, Santiago won't quit trying to help open the door for his kids and Mangini won't close the door on his hometown and his people.