By Mike Manning
Mike Cerasuolo says all of the athletes on his Springfield College football team are unbelievable. Despite having coached hundreds over his five years at the helm, such praise is to be expected – the little school on Alden Street is known for the attitudes of their students.
Though, Cerasuolo will tell you – without any hesitation – that there isn’t anyone quite like “the biggest personality on the team.” None compare to the happy-go-lucky kid from Dorado, Puerto Rico who greets everyone with a smile and sees no task too tall.
None compare to Armando Torres.
The second year quarterback had quickly emerged as a pulsating heartbeat in the locker room for the Pride.
“We’re all shouting out his name at practice when he comes on the field in practice,” Caeden Hale said.
But when Hurricane Maria tormented the small island of Puerto Rico, Torres’ enrollment at the college seemed to be a thought of the past. The category five hurricane not only washed away buildings and deprived 1.5 million people of power, it also took Armando’s aspirations adrift with it.
On Sept. 20, 2017, the hurricane stripped the close knit Torres family of electricity for seven elongated months. Warm meals were scarce, his mental health was plummeting, and his brother, Jaydell, was some 1,700 miles away beginning his first semester in Springfield, Mass. He had to wait two months before talking with his brother.
However, what stung him the most was having to see his parents’ stress rise as weeks came and went without returning to work.
“It hurt me seeing the realization that next month [my mom] wouldn’t have a check. For me, my mom is everything, my mom means a lot to me. Seeing her like that made me want to do so many things, but I couldn’t,” he said. “After the hurricane we couldn’t do much.”
With his brother’s absence and his parents hurting, Armando had to do something. He found himself spending his schoolless days helping out around the house and even journeying through his debri ridden town to secure ice and warm food. It was imperative he found his way home before dawn when gunshots rang and lopsided trades caused brawls.
“People were fighting over ice, food and gasoline for the cars. It was a mess,” Armando said. “I knew when to step up and do things on my own for myself and my family.”
“When I would talk to my mother she would tell me that if Armando did not help during the times we didn’t have power, then she probably would’ve lost it,” Jaydell said.
He worked tirelessly everyday to make sure life was the slightest bit easier. So when the electricity came back seven months later, school was back, and his parents were both working, he was finally able to take a sigh of relief.
Three years after the storm he still reacts gloomingly to the word “Maria.” The storm which stole livelihoods that took decades to build and claimed nearly 3,000 innocent lives, leaves Armando with a heavy heart. But he still manages to pull some good from the storm. Forever grateful only materialistic things were taken from him, Armando appreciates the lessons it taught him.
“I think in that moment, I became a man,” he said.
With the finale of his senior year in high school at the Colegio De La Salle nearing, Armando had college football on his mind. He also had Jaydell nudging him to follow in his footsteps and play ball at Springfield College.
This was a picture perfect idea, but it was one Armando didn’t take seriously at first.
“I couldn’t speak English,” he said.
He relied on his brother and sister to translate for him when they would vacate in Orlando and Miami.
As time passed and Jaydell continued to coax him, Armando’s mind began to change. He knew what was at stake – if he wanted to play football he’d have to learn English. Over the phone Jaydell would tell him, “if I could learn it, then you can too.”
So after many pep talks, and careful consideration, Armando asked his mother to sign him up for a tutor who he met with twice a week for the next six months.
There were many times when Armando felt like giving up. He remembers coming home and telling his mom it felt “impossible,” and that he wasn’t getting anywhere. There were many times when he would step back and ask himself, “what am I doing?”
But he kept his head down and stayed positive.
During this process, Armando received word from Cerasuolo that he was interested in him coming to visit the team. Watching Armando dance around defenders on a field surrounded by palm trees, Cerasuolo noted that he was very talented.
“He was the kind of kid we wanted on the team,” he said.
When the “Welcome to the Birthplace of Basketball” arch greeted him and his father to the campus, Armando’s already racing nerves felt like they were ready to explode. He was still learning English, and was insecure about how he sounded.
“They aren’t going to take me seriously, they won’t understand me, this is going to be a mess,” he thought.
But when Jaydell, who served as his translator, introduced him to Cerasuolo, Armando remembers feeling the love. He was taken aback by how close his brother was with him, and how welcoming he was.
“The love he [Cerasuolo] had for my brother was like wow,” he said. “You aren’t just a number over there, you’ve got a name.”
Armando was still very quiet during his visit – something the coaches picked up on – but he was happy at the direction things were headed and knew he had to continue to work on his language.
Armando kept in touch with the coaches over the phone for the next few months before school began. Cerasuolo could still sense that Armando was shy and remembered their unbalanced conversations.
“Our conversations were definitely one sided,” he said, something the two now look back at jokingly.
Finally on campus, Armando still was not feeling much better about his situation. He remained very insecure about how he sounded and his roommate had dropped out, leaving him all alone.
“I would fail alone, I didn’t have anyone there,” he said.
There was support from his coaches and team, but something was off. Armando found himself at a new low. He struggled with his classes and was having a hard time making new friends.
“I felt really bad and awful,” Hale said. “It really hurt me to see that he was living on his own. He wasn’t really getting the full college experience of hanging out with people.”
Hale began sitting with him during breakfast and became the friend Armando needed. He noticed that Armado was still very shy because of the language barrier. Despite that, he constantly made an effort to invite him over to his room where they would hangout, bond over video games and work on assignments together.
He saw that Armando was having a hard time with his classes and would help him review the notes after their classes where he would put them in a way where Armando could understand it.
“The biggest thing for him was writing notes down,” Hale said. “He expressed that sometimes the teacher would write a little too fast.”
Hale started to notice that as he introduced Armando to his friend group, he started to become less shy and more talkative. His speech quickly bettered and Armando had confidence in his voice.
His brother remembers being shocked at how well Armando was speaking when they visited him for the first time.
“It was definitely funny at first, but watching him speak [English] to other people it was like holy shit, he got it,” Jaydell said. “It was crazy how fast he learned it in that short of time.”
Greg Webster also was astounded by his language development. He had worked with Armando as the offensive coordinator and couldn’t help but notice how much he was changing.
“It was incredible. He grasped the English language so fast and you could see that his personality came with it,” Webster said.
Now, as the first semester of his sophomore year is in the books, Armando is forever grateful for the help and acceptance his teammates and coaches gave him. Looking back on it, he appreciates all of the challenges and struggles that came his way.
”It was a process, it was very tough. But we are here and I’m living the dream right now,” he said, smiling with pride.
Photo: Armando Torres