ON TUESDAY, THINK ABOUT TONY FITZGERALD…and everyone else the NYI mean everything to

Tony Fitzgerald…you probably know him even if you don’t know his name. He’s the guy in the wheelchair with the big smile in the handicapped section at center ice for just about every Islanders game at the Nassau Veterans Memorial Coliseum. He’s had four season tickets there for twenty years, been a fan for a lot longer than that. Tony turns 50 in November, which is amazing because he looks ten years younger. Which is amazing when you think about what he’s been through.

On July 16, 1987, Tony and his brother Dan were driving home to Long Island from Baltimore, where Dan’s commercial roofing business had just completed a job. There was a hard rain. Another driver lost control of his car. It hopped the divider and crashed into the Fitzgeralds’ vehicle.

Dan, a veteran of the United States Navy, was killed. Tony, then 27 years old, knew he was as close to dying as someone could be. His left femur was broken. His right arm was broken. His kidneys would shut down. He would later learn that his aorta was severed, and 98% of accident victims with severed aortas do not make it.

Tony was taken by helicopter to Prince George Hospital in Maryland while paramedics worked on his heart. He was in immense pain, but was alert through it all. When he arrived in the emergency room, Tony told a doctor one thing:

“Whatever you have to do, keep me alive. Whatever you have to do.”

The medical team at Prince George fulfilled his wish. Tony would come out of an endless cycle of procedures alive. His heart, which stopped three times in the emergency room, would beat again. His mind – whip-smart, charming, kind – blessedly, would be unaffected.

Tony Fitzgerald would be paralyzed from the waist down, likely for the rest of his life.

Thinking back to that day in 1987, Tony cannot explain why he told the doctor what he did, does not understand why and how he had the determination to plead with them to keep him alive at whatever cost. He was a 27-year-old working in his brother’s roofing business. He had Donna, his beautiful girlfriend for the last two years. Life was good, but Tony was not at a place where he was thinking about a higher calling.

But these days, when you look at Tony Fitzgerald of Floral Park and his three guests at Islanders games from night to night, it starts to make sense.

Hey, there’s Tony with players from the Long Island Roughriders – the sled hockey team of handicapped youngsters that he coaches.

There’s Tony with his teammates from the Nassau Kings – the wheelchair basketball team he plays for.

There’s Tony with his buddies from the Nassau Aviators – the wheelchair softball team that plays at Eisenhower Park.

There’s Tony with colleagues and clients from his job as a vocation rehabilitation counselor at ACCES – Adult Career & Educational Services, where he helps handicapped Long Islanders in their job pursuits.

On other nights, you might see him with any of his three older brothers or two sisters. Or his nephew Brian, a college student whom Tony took to his first Islanders game at the age of 3. Or his 86-year-old mom.

Tony’s love for hockey and the Islanders inspired him after the tragedy. He began playing sled hockey, becoming a member of the Eastern Paralyzed Veterans Association Islanders. Tony became such a proficient athlete, he played on national teams. He played at the Olympics in Nagano and World Championships in Sweden. Over the years, the Islanders and Rangers have sponsored Tony and his teams. He cannot imagine life without the NHL franchise that plays in Nassau, 15 minutes from his home.

“I love the Islanders. I love hockey,” Tony said today. “I’m sure a lot of the fans feel the same way: there’s also a big social aspect to going to the game. I’m surrounded by my friends. I’m surrounded by people who care as much about the sport and the Islanders as I do. This is a big, big part of my life and I never want to see it taken away.”

So Tuesday brings another rally, another round of meetings at the Nassau Legislature Building. All sides will have their ideas on what should and what should not be done at the Coliseum site, who should pay for it and who should profit from it. There will be arguments. There will be spin. There will be heartbreak. There will be moments of hope.

But now is the time to put away grudges and petty disputes. Now is not the time to take your ball and go home. Our community leaders and the developers must work together.

Make the case about family shows, if you will. Make your case about concerts. But keep something in mind: Long Islanders are not walking around thinking that the fall of the Coliseum means they’ll never see their favorite singers and bands again. There are other places to go, even if it means taking the train. There isn’t a soul on this Island worried about the loss of their one or two nights a year they’ll miss going to a concert or family show at the Coliseum.

Bon Jovi, and all the others, play the barn a night or two every few years. The New York Islanders play the Nassau Veterans Memorial Coliseum at least 41 nights a year. Charles Wang is the rainmaker, rightfully so, because he owns the New York Islanders. When these rallies are held, or the public is asked to attend another meeting of Legislature, they don’t send invitations to fans of Jay-Z or Muse or Billy Joel (who hasn’t played the barn in a decade). They hit the Twitter and Facebook pages read by fans of the New York Islanders.

“I respect that there’s a lot of business to haggle over,” said Tony Fitzgerald. “I just hope they finally come together for the people of Long Island and for the Islander fans.”

Then he laughed. “Hey, I know how these new arenas work,” he said. “Me and my buddies could lose our center-ice seats in the new place. I hope it doesn’t happen, but I’ll worry about it when the time comes. I just want to see the politicians and the businesspeople work together so we can keep our team.”

Amen. Let’s hope they think about everyone in Islanders Country on Tuesday.

Especially for people like Tony and his partner for life. Yeah, 26 years after their first Islanders game – 24 after Tony’s accident – Saturday at the Coliseum is still Date Night for Tony and Donna.

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