Family Background and Peewee Football:
First Concussion at age 7
My great-grandparents, Carmine and Lily Gonnelli, were the first to come to America from Italy, and Carmine was the first to be an entrepreneur in our family. He started his own successful barbershop right off the boat, setting up shop at Mitchell Field Military Base. His clientele was soldiers and coaches at Nassau Community College in Long Island, New York. Mitchell Field Military Base was a historical landmark. It was where Charles Lindberg, flew nonstop from and landed in Paris in 1927 at age 25. Also one of the most famous Hollywood scenes ever, the assassination scene of Sonny at the tollbooth from The Godfather, was filmed right near my greatgrandfather’s shop. At the shop as a young boy, my father, Lawrence Dell Aquila, swept hair before and after school. Both of my father’s parents, Big Mo and Louise, were uneducated.
From my memories as a little boy, my grandfather was very hardworking. He was a strong, tough guy, and kind-hearted just like my dad. He was always working two or three jobs, mostly in the sanitation industry to support the family of six who grew up extremely poor. They lived in Farmingdale, Long Island. Farmingdale was broken up into two segregated areas and my father’s family lived in the mixed area with mostly Italians, Irish, Spanish, and people of color. Sometimes my father’s brother and two sisters had to be separated and sent to the other family members for short periods of time to cut costs for food and shelter.
My dad was the oldest. He usually had to support himself from an early age for short periods of time, a true tough guy, and a natural street hustler. These are common traits in the Dell Aquila DNA. My grandfather passed away from a heart attack and diabetes when I was very young. My most vivid memory of him was his strong hands, strong hands just like my dad’s. We loved to go the movies, pay one ticket and sneak into the other one, and we’d see all of them at the multiplex and make a day of it. He was always working the backyard, trying to fix the lawnmower, or some piece of equipment someone threw away, or he found it on the job and he was trying to fix it. Y’know, to make a buck or two. He was a large man in size and always had a thick cigar that he chewed in his mouth. My grandmother was kind, always laughing, but she had problems with her teeth, so I always had a hard time kind of understanding her. My mother’s parents were middle-class. My grandfather, Marcel, came from France, and my grandmother, Caroline, came from Scotland, very conservative people.
They were always kind to people but behind closed doors it was kind of like the Archie Bunker Show. Their view on race and people was narrow- minded and stereotypical even for that time period. My mother’s family structure was the complete opposite from my dad’s. Her father always worked: he was an independent salesman who always made a good steady living. They never needed anything, but they were conservative and responsible with their money. My grandmother managed my grandfather’s books and stayed at home to raise the two children, one boy, and my mother, Caroline. They grew up on the good side of the tracks in Farmingdale, all upper-middle-white class, except when the occasional landscaper came on the weekends to cut the grass. At that time most of those types of jobs were for the manual laborers, you know, the Italians and the Spanish. This town was small, but extremely segregated.
My mother and father met in high school. My mother was beautiful and a good student. My mom was like Sandy Olsson (Olivia Newton John) and my dad was like Danny Zuko (John Travolta) from Grease. My father excelled in athletics; that was his true passion. He was a high school all-star baseball player, football player, wrestler, a true triple threat, always breaking records, always in the local paper on a regular basis because of his achievements. He was never interested in academics, not because he couldn’t do the work, he just did the bare minimum to pass and graduate. His focus was sports and making a buck anyway he could.
My father’s dream was to play for the Yankees. After trying out and not making the team, he was devastated. He enlisted in the Air Force during the Vietnam War and finagled to have himself stationed in Philadelphia as a secretary. The Air Force realized his athletic ability and placed him on the top units’ athletic teams to represent them. He had freedom most soldiers did not have. Just as a leopard cannot change his spots, my father was trying to earn an extra buck any way he could. He went back to the survival street skills he developed over the years. He had an office on the base where he ran a small-sized black-market business, although it was not on the up and up. It was never anything big, you know, petty stuff. He started taking small bets, hustling pool games, selling typewriters, stationery, and office supplies to the local businesses at a discount. As the merchandise came in the front door, he sold it out the back door. Anything he could get his hands on to bring in additional money so he and my mother could get married. Once he was discharged from the Air Force, he came back home and cut hair for my great-grandfather.
By now, grandpa Gonnelli had most of his clients for the shop coming in from Nassau Community College. The college started expand and take over as the military base scaled down. Most of the professors and the coaches from the college would come in and get their hair cut, and remembered my dad being such an amazing athlete in high school. They encouraged him to go back to school and get his college degree and become a physical education teacher, with their help in the process. While taking on this challenge, my mother Caroline was raising my sister, who was two years old, and I was a newborn. We lived in Oakdale, two hours east of where my dad worked and went to college. Over the next couple of years, my dad went full-time to school and worked two jobs, cutting hair during the day, valet parking cars at Roosevelt Raceway at night to support our family and pay for his education. I never saw much of him in the early years. How he did it and when he found the time to sleep, I still don’t know, even to this day. I guess it was the Dell Aquila DNA again: never to give up.
To this day, my slogan is I’ll get enough sleep when I’m dead. Even though school was a challenge and did not come easily, my father ended up getting his Master’s and was four credits shy of his Doctorate. After receiving his degree, he was hired as a physical education teacher and assistant wrestling coach at Nassau Community College. Soon after that he was promoted to run the intramural department where he was finally making a decent living. So now he was able to give up cutting hair and parking cars, and strictly focus all of his time and energy into his job at the college. The time away from home was taking a toll on my mother, so my parents bought a small nice house at 145 Chestnut Street in Garden City, five minutes from the college in a wealthy, waspy area. I was in third grade at the time, I never really fit in with the kids at GC, you know most of their dads worked on Wall Street and were very wealthy. I had one close friend, Anthony B., and his father owned a Ford dealership. My sister on the other hand, loved the GC school. But I had learning problems and a short temper, the kids used to make fun of me when I had to read in front of the class, so I’d get into fights constantly after school. This was a sore spot for me and made me insecure. This negative behavior pattern due to my insecurity would resurface again throughout my life. At age 7, I was introduced to tackle football and played for the Garden City Rams. It was pee-wee football. I loved it.
Since my dad was a workaholic, I never really got to spend too much time with him except sometimes on Sundays. I loved watching the games on Sunday with my dad, especially when the Raiders and the Steelers played, old school hard hits. I tried to duplicate what I saw on Sunday as a third grader, throwing my body into tackles and running the ball with no regard for my body, trying to use my speed, catching ability, and my helmet as a weapon, dishing out as much punishment as I could to take out the other players. My second game playing I was knocked out cold because I lead with my head on a tackle. My mother was horrified. She said she was scared to death because her baby was this little guy laid out flat and didn’t even move for a while. The coaches ran out on the field quickly to attend to me; they me straight to Minneola hospital. The doctor said I had a slight concussion, but nothing was broken, and I would be okay and I was cleared and released right away.
Thanks to my dad winning an argument with my mom, I was back playing the next week, having a blast. You know, back in the day, they didn’t know any better. That was probably the first concussion I had. After the season was finished, I probably would’ve loved to keep playing, but it was the last time I played organized football until about tenth grade. Instead, I transitioned into soccer, because my dad started consulting with a new start-up major indoor pro soccer league. He consulted for the New York Arrows. I got to play and learn from the pros; it was pretty cool for a kid my age. I was a good athlete, but I never was going to be like Pele in the sport. I did get my head banged around a lot. I remember this one time; I was running as fast as I could looking back for the ball and fell headfirst right into the soccer wall. I saw stars, got up quickly on my feet, but I was like stumbling. When I got home, I had a really back headache and started to throw up all night. Probably another concussion I received, but really never went to the doctor for that one.
When I hit fifth grade, my father was making great strides at the college. He got promoted to the position of athletic director, where part of his incentive package included moving on campus and having a beautiful, large house for $700 per month, utilities included, and he was able to receive tenure. So, my parents sold our Garden City house. My dad invested the money from the sale of the house, then we moved on the campus. It was like a giant playground for me with athletic fields, large gymnasiums, weight rooms, but there were no other kids my age to play with. The good part was since we lived on campus I got to see a lot of my dad. When we moved, the school districts changed. I had to attend an all-black school, Uniondale, a very tough school. It was in between Hempstead and Roosevelt. Roosevelt is where Eddie Murphy, Howard Stern, and the iconic hip-hop group Public Enemy came from. They called this area “Strong Island.” It was okay for me to attend Uniondale; my dad told my mom it would give me a different outlook on life, what the world is really like for those that are not as privileged, and he was right.
I actually liked it at the time, most of the kids I hung out with were really good at sports, had learning disabilities, and if they did have a dad, they hardly saw their father, same as me. The kids I am describing that were in my circle were like me, but there was also a large percentage of honor roll kids that were fast tracking to college.. No one ever made fun of me for my reading and my writing problems. I felt pretty comfortable. As for my sister, she was daddy’s little girl, and there was no way she was going to that jungle. Not that my parents were the least bit racist, it was more that I was built like my dad and my sister was more like my mom, so she was sent to an all-girls private school, St. Mary’s; safe, structured, and high-performance academics. She loved it as well; we were complete opposites with our personalities and learning skills. Things were going good overall for the Dell Aquila clan.
Within three months of attending Uniondale and being in a completely different environment as a fifth grader, I started to notice that I had a special skill set developing, kind of like Spiderman’s “spidey senses.” I was able to read and size up people pretty quickly, whether it was a teacher, bus driver, or a fellow classmate. I was able to quickly feel out people’s agenda, good or bad. It always seemed like everyone had an angle, and this was only in fifth grade! Instead of being paranoid, I embraced this as a way of learning. I started to hone my skills by just looking into people’s eyes, just to see how they moved, and how they acted when they were talking to me. It’s a fact that if you’re talking to someone and their eyes move side-to-side, they’re most likely lying. So sometimes I’d just sit, silently watching their body language, or how they answered questions that I asked. Or I’d watch from afar at how they’d act with different people. No one ever taught me these skills, it just happened. These skills naturally improved over the years with different life situations and business experience.
I always thought I looked at the world differently, kind of like a game of chess. Those were some of the traits that made me interested in boxing, wrestling, and in business. To this day I do not know if this skill set is a blessing or a curse, it was just the way my mind worked to compensate for things I couldn’t learn in the classroom like other normal students. When I was labeled learning disabled, it hurt, and embarrassed me in the worst way. I didn’t want to be a dummy; I knew I wasn’t going to be a rocket scientist but I didn’t want to be Forrest Gump either. I always thought I had a different way of looking at life and learning the way they taught in school was very difficult for me. I couldn’t put it into words to get the right help; I was very embarrassed. And that seed was planted in my mind that I was dumb, and I would never amount to anything. And I buried those feelings for many years. I put on a big front as a fake narcissist at the time, being drawn to the shady crowd, you know the guys that were always looking for some kind of angle, or some kind of score. Learning disability programs in the Eighties, especially in my school, took all the troubled kids with anger issues, family issues, reading issues, writing issues, and threw us in a large classroom, which everyone called “the zoo.” In the LD class, the teacher tried to teach us a subject or two, and that was basically their job. But I think it was a no-win situation for that poor teacher. The classes were too big and there was no control. So, their agenda changed, and most of the time they passed us through if you just showed a minimal effort. Their main goal was to make sure that there were no fights and the class stayed busy with activities. Some of the true thugs loved it, especially on that rare occasion when we got a poor substitute teacher.