Invincible
TAGS: Health SciencesStudent Story

ABANDONED. REJECTED. HOMELESS. Knocked down twice—once by a sports injury, once by a car accident. Yet AIC senior Vincent Hall of Long Beach, New York, still stands tall, sights firmly set on his goal—a doctorate in physical therapy.

In a life marked by heartbreak, rejection and deep disappointment, this 6’5″, 230-pound gentle giant has managed to maintain a can-do attitude, always looking ahead, no matter what.

How does he do it? He says the answer can be found on a tattoo on his chest. It’s taken from a quote by the rapper Drake: “live without pretending, love without depending, listen without defending, speak without offending.”

The story begins with Vincent and his fraternal twin, Princeton Hall, about to enter preschool in Long Beach, when their parents decided to divorce. Their mother took them to Florida, where they lived for eight years. During that time, they lost contact with their dad. When they became adolescents, their mother felt they needed a male figure in their lives and chose to place them in boarding school.

“She first sent us to Oneida Baptist Institute (in Oneida, Kentucky) for sixth grade. A year later, she switched us to the Florida Sheriffs Boys Ranch (in Live Oak, Florida),” Vincent said. While there, Vincent’s mother decided to move to California, and left the boys behind, at the boarding school. “She packed up and left without a word,” Vincent said.

What would happen to them? They feared they would become wards of the state. Fortunately, they were saved from that by an aunt, who brought them back to Long Island, where she was able to track down their father.

“My aunt found out that he was getting married, so the three of us crashed the wedding. Our dad’s new wife was stunned to see us—she didn’t know he had kids.”

His new wife soon made it clear that she didn’t want the twins around—more rejection in their young lives.

“Our dad didn’t abandon us, but he didn’t want to be with us, either. He got us an apartment in a rundown building in a Long Beach ghetto. He’d bring money every week, but we were basically living by ourselves while we were in eighth grade. We kept quiet about it— didn’t tell anybody at school,” Vincent said.

Into the Arena

As a rebellious eighth grader, Vincent had a discipline problem that put him in danger of being suspended from school. He had to face Raymond Adams, dean of the school who also happened to be the wrestling coach.

“He basically told me that I could be suspended, or I could go out for the wrestling team. I said, ‘Is that anything like the World Wide Wrestling Federation?’ He said, ‘No, come out and we’ll show you.’ That’s when I found the father figure I was looking for. Coach Adams took me under his wing; treated me like one of his own.

He taught me how to wrestle, and how to have good sportsmanship on and off the mat. Being part of a team gave me a family kind of feeling I never knew before.”

As a rookie wrestler, Vincent did well. He won eight of nine matches, showing promise for the future.

“During the summer before ninth grade, our dad came around and made it clear again that he didn’t want us. His new wife was a lawyer, and he had a house, a BMW, a lavish lifestyle. He said, ‘You think I’m going to give all that up for you?’ That really tore me up, but it also made me push harder with wrestling—in part, to win my dad’s favor.”

Vincent trained, lifted weights and went into ninth grade at 160 pounds. He made the high school varsity team (also coached by Adams) as a freshman and earned a spot in the starting lineup. It was a good year for Vincent. He placed fourth in the state and went to the nationals in Fargo, North Dakota.

“That was another thing wrestling did for me—I got to travel,” he said. Now up to 171 pounds, Vincent went to the nationals again as a sophomore after pinning the No. 2-seeded wrestler in the Nassau County sectional tournament.

“The meet was at Hofstra University before a big crowd. I got tremendous applause for that pin. A great feeling,” he said.

Vincent really blossomed as a junior, bigger and stronger than ever. Wrestling in the 189-pound class, he went 44-4 with a high percentage of pins. However, in the Nassau County sectional tournament, he ran into a kind of adversity he had never encountered before—an injury.

“I was wrestling this kid, and somehow he turned my right knee the wrong way, like at a 90-degree angle. That was it—a torn meniscus. I was devastated. At that age, I thought I was invincible. Never thought I could be hurt.”

With the injury came orthopedic surgery, followed by his introduction to physical therapy.

“When I started PT, I thought I would never walk again, but it brought me all the way back. I was so impressed, I knew right then that I wanted to be a physical therapist. Toward the end of that summer, I was able to lift weights and I was running three miles every morning. I went into that wrestling season with fire in my eyes. I loved my coach. I was ranked fourth nationally, and second in Nassau County. I was at 210 pounds and solid. I felt stronger than ever. PT helped me believe in myself again,” Vincent said.

Then … a setback out of nowhere.

LIDO BEACH, NY – JAN 30, 2008: Vincent Hall of Long Beach, top, gets the better of Pat Zagarino of Bellmore JFK en route to a victory by decision at 171 pounds during varsity wrestling competition at Long Beach High School. Long Beach won the match 33-23. © James Esche

Down But Not Out

“It was a gloomy day, and my brother came banging on my door, wondering where his bike was. I told him I left it at my friend’s house, and I said I would go get it right away. He said ‘Why’d you do that?’ Then he punched me in the face and ran out the door. I chased him and slammed him to the ground. He got up, went inside, grabbed a kitchen knife from the drawer and stabbed me twice in the lower back and left side.” The stabbing severed nerves, and Vincent lost sensation in his left leg. While in the hospital, the doctor advised Vincent to give up wrestling for the remainder of the season.

The stabbing incident happened a week before the first tournament of his senior year. Still, he had the willpower to carry on. Vincent forgave his brother, refusing to turn him in. Instead, he spent that wrestling season on the sidelines, cheering on his teammates. He was team captain, but could not compete.

“What a time to be out. It was depressing. I had to watch the team win, but not perform. The team had a great year, won everything,” he said. Once again, though, Vincent was able to summon inner strength and carry on. He concentrated on finishing his senior year, graduating in 2010, and by that time the nerve damage was fully healed.

He went on to Jamestown Community College in upstate New York, but the year went so badly for him he was dismissed from school. He went back to Long Beach and was living with his father. Again, though, his dad decided to remarry, and “he kicked me out of his house.” At that point, Vincent was homeless.

“The only person who could help me then was Coach Adams,” Vincent said. “I told him my situation, and he was in a state of disbelief. He knew my potential, and he didn’t want me to fall victim to doing or selling drugs and being in and out of jail. So, he and Assistant Coach Leo Palacio found me a place to live for a year. It was with the Palacio family. They helped me get a job at a Marshalls clothing store. As it turned out, I didn’t like retail, and I feared that I’d be stuck with that if I didn’t get back to school.”

After that year, he reapplied at Jamestown, convinced the registrar that he could redeem himself, and did it.

“I made the Dean’s List—an amazing feeling,” he said.

The Long Road

Vincent then decided to leave Jamestown and transfer to Nassau Community College on Long Island. That meant he was about to be homeless again.

Adam DeJesus, his best friend on the high school wrestling team, stepped up and told Vincent he could stay with him. “It meant some sacrifices for Adam because his place was crowded, but he was willing to do it. He wanted me to continue my education,” Vincent said.

DeJesus also was at Nassau. He graduated while Vincent was still there and moved away from Long Beach. The result: Vincent was homeless once more. He moved into his cousin’s vacant house, rife with “drug dealers, crackheads, roaches, and bedbugs.” He stayed there for a year and a half, sleeping fitfully on couches, trying to avoid any trouble. Through all of that, he never missed classes.

“James Hodge (director of the Martin Luther King Center in Long Beach) knew of my daily battles and helped me. When I told him I needed a chemistry tutor, he put a request on Facebook.” A reply came from Johanna Sofield, founder of The Long Beach Christmas Angel Inc., a nonprofit organization dedicated to assisting families in the Long Beach City School District with financial difficulties.

“She reached out and helped me find a tutor. When I asked her about the cost, she said, ‘Just show up. It’s all taken care of.’ Then, she found me a place to live. At first, she let me stay in one of her houses. Later, after she got to know me well enough, she asked her husband, daughter, and three sons if I could move in with them. They said yes right away, and I have been with them for over two years now. They feel like the family I never had,” he said.

In 2016, Vincent received an associate’s degree from Nassau Community College. Then he went to work at the Long Beach Recreation Center as he looked for colleges that could lead him to his PT goal. He applied to 12 schools that allowed transfer from a community college and gained acceptance from each one.

Meanwhile, his twin saw Vincent’s success at Nassau and followed him there, earning an associate’s degree in criminal justice. “He’s in Queens now, working on special-needs cases. We’re good. We’re brothers. I love the guy,” Vincent said.

In his search for schools that offered 3+3 PT programs, American International College stood out. The College’s offer of “small classes, big impact” seemed just right for him. Mrs. Sofield offered to take him to Springfield for a tour of the AIC campus.

“She was impressed and encouraged me to pick AIC. When she heard that it also offered tutoring services, she said, ‘This is the school for you!’ It was a no-brainer. AIC just felt right.”

But Vincent had to deal with one more setback. On August 20, 2016, seven days before he was scheduled to start at AIC as a junior, he was struck by a police car as he was riding his bicycle in Long Beach.

“The vehicle seemed to come out of nowhere. It knocked me unconscious and I wound up in the hospital with side, shoulder and back injuries—and memory problems.

“The doctor suggested that I take a semester off to recuperate from the level three concussion I suffered in the accident, but I was 25 years old and didn’t want to delay any longer,” Vincent said.

His first semester at AIC was “super tough,” but a course in cognitive psychology taught by Professor and Chair of Undergraduate Psychology Sandra Sego helped a great deal as he sought to bring his memory all the way back. He learned how memory works, which in turn helped him learn how to make his own memory more efficient and effective.

Still, he was troubled in the early weeks by low grades, which made him fearful of his future at AIC. “There was a week off from classes around Columbus Day, and I was supposed to go back to Long Beach for the break. I wanted to go, but I stayed here to figure out school. I’d get up at 5 a.m., watch YouTube videos relating to my classes, and get to work. I was relentless. My grades skyrocketed after staying here that week.”

To help compensate for the memory loss caused by the car accident, Vincent took advantage of AIC’s Supportive Learning Services, which provides one-on-one tutorial assistance in addition to study skills workshops tailored to the unique needs of each student. He also utilized AIC’s Center for Academic Success, working on chemistry with student tutor Stefanie Dufresne. “She explained a lot—made it easier to understand,” Vincent said.

Higher Dedication

Since that fateful October week, he has steadily boosted his GPA to 3.47 as he continues on the path leading to his doctorate in physical therapy.

All the while, Vincent is still dealing with the aftermath of the other injuries sustained when he was hit by the car. His memory is still recovering, and he underwent shoulder surgery in February 2018. He also attends regular physical therapy sessions at ProEx in downtown Springfield.

“My dream is to help others, just as physical therapy helps me,” Vincent says. “I will have hands-on experience with patients, and with being a patient. I feel I can impact people’s lives, doing something that makes them feel better and makes me feel good at the same time.”

-By Gary Brown ’55