‘Mayor of the gym’ reboots his life

Inwood resident makes giving back to the community a mission


Life after football is often a difficult transition for athletes who have spent their entire lives focused on the game. For Inwood resident Jermaine Ewell, a former Lawrence High School linebacker and fullback, that transition came much earlier than he expected.

His story has been told by The New York Times and Sports Illustrated: the story of a young, black star player whose life changed at age 17, in 1991, when an argument with a group of white men over a girl escalated into an attack on him. His life before and afterward is detailed in “Beyond the Boardwalk,” a documentary that will be shown on the MSG Network on August 25 at 9:30.

Overcoming severe injuries, Ewell made headlines again when, 10 years later, he visited Shannon Siegel, who orchestrated the attack that nearly killed him, in prison. The pair struck up so unlikely a friendship that Ewell visited Siegel’s ailing mother before she died of lung cancer, while her son was still incarcerated.

After serving 13 years at the Clinton Correctional Center in upstate New York, Siegel was diagnosed with cancer in 2014, and died that August. By that time, he had turned his life around, and was coaching the Nassau Titans in the National Junior Baseball League, a team he founded.

Ewell, 43, can be now be found at Life Club, a health club in Lawrence where he works as a trainer, and works out on his own. “I didn’t really have a whole lot of money for a membership,” he said, “so what’s another way to live in the gym is you work there. … I just walked in there — I didn’t know if I would be a maintenance man, or whatever. I just wanted to have my foot in the door, at least.”

That was in the early 2000s, after he had received medical clearance to play football again. At the time, Ewell had been researching culinary schools, but that idea took a backseat to football. In 2005, Sports Illustrated chronicled his attempt to make the Albany Conquest, an Arena Football League team, which ultimately fell short.

He has come a long way since then. One of his clients, Lawrence resident Miriam Elias, called Ewell “the mayor of the gym.” “He’s got his own handshakes with everyone there,” she said.

Elias has been training with Ewell at Life Club for three years. She works with him four times a week, and says that he constantly changes their workouts, which keeps her from getting bored. She cites him as a major source of motivation. “The words ‘giving up’ are not allowed,” she said.

Working out with Ewell has changed her life and made her a healthier person, Elias said. “Jermaine just wants to help people reach their goals …,” she said. “He really is a remarkable person. Helping people like this isn’t a job for him, it’s a mission.”

Ewell preaches the importance of staying active and healthy. “People need to take better care of themselves,” he said. “You don’t have to go to the gym, you just have to do something to improve your fitness and health. If you do nothing, you’re shortening your life. You have to take care of yourself. You have to be appreciative of the fact that you’re alive and the fact that every day you have a chance to do something positive and better yourself.”

It is evident in his actions that Ewell is true to his words: He has never stopped trying to improve himself. He enjoys cooking — “I like good food,” he said — and he has recently found another outlet for his creativity.

“I’ve always had an interest in photography,” he said. “I’m an observer, so I watch everything. Certain things stand out to me, and if I can capture it the way I see it, then I know that’s a good thing for me.”

Professional photographer Kathy Leistner, a Herald contributor, met Ewell through her husband, Ken, a chiropractor who helped train Jermaine for his return to football.

Without his knowledge, Leistner entered some photos that Ewell took with his smartphone in the 37th annual Juried Photography Show at the Freeport Library in June. One of those shots was among only 30 selected for recognition out of more than 200 submissions, many by professionals.

“I just love his photos,” Leistner said. “He finds a lot of beauty and peace in his work. It’s very zen-like.”

Leistner has urged Ewell to enroll in a photography class, and gave him a camera to use. “I rarely use it,” he admitted. “I’m sure my photos would be a lot better if I did use a camera, but right now I just use my phone.”

Ewell is also an active volunteer in the Five Towns. “He’s always the go-to guy to help people out …,” Leistner said. “He’s a great role model.”

Working with Rock and Wrap it Up!, a Cedarhurst-based nonprofit organization that donates surplus food and other items from sporting events and musical shows at venues such as the Northwell Health at Jones Beach Theater, Ewell displays the positive attitude that allowed him to move beyond his past.

“You have to give back to where you came from, and if everyone just gave a little bit, this whole world would be a better place,” he said. “It doesn’t take much.”