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Standing at 5-foot-11 and 230 pounds, in rolled-up tan jeans, suede blue dress shoes, with a Gucci fanny pack and gold jewelry, Jordan Gowins stood out among the simple-clad inmates at Riverhead Corrections facility. He took a day off from a grueling 7-days-a-week training schedule as an NFL prospect to speak with some of the younger inmates, aged 18 to 25, about his life’s journey and how to overcome obstacles Monday afternoon.
Two months ago, Suffolk County Sheriff Errol Toulon Jr. invited the former Stony Brook Univerity star running back to speak at the facility.
From Bellport, 22-year-old Gowins was used to walking out his front door every day to see caution tape or hear gunshots. “All that doesn’t matter, what my odds were,” he said. “I made sure to excel against them.” The room was stark quiet as Gowins addressed the nine inmates, starting with his own life story. He offered words of advice, much wiser than one would expect from someone his age. When Gowins was in the 8th grade, scouts from St. Anthony’s High School pulled him out to play football. One coach told him, “I’d hate to see your talent go to waste in Bellport.” Something that, all too often, happens.
Many inmates come from lower-income communities, like Coram, Bellport, and Shirley. “Neighborhoods with more concentrated disadvantage tend to experience higher levels of violent crime. Poverty, segregation, and inequality are related to neighborhoods’ access to resources and ability to solve problems, including problems that foster crime”, according to Neighborhoods and Violent Crime, published in 2016 by the Office of Policy Development and Research, a part of the United States Department of Housing and Urban Development.
“It’s good to see someone from the hood who made it out,” said a Shaun, a 19-year-old inmate from Riverhead. An inmate at the facility for eight months, Shaun felt inspired by Gowins and plans to go to college to become a counselor to help others in similar situations. “That’s someone that’s been in your shoes,” officer Dominick Verni, program coordinator for Suffolk County Sheriff’s Office, said to Shaun.
In October 2018, the facility introduced “Choose Your Path,” a program that offers classes to learn skill sets, like horticulture, mechanics, and art. The officer highlighted dedication and structure as ways to succeed, as well as avoiding idle time. The program keeps the inmates busy from 8 a.m to 7 p.m, which will prepare them for long workweeks when they return to the general population. Rehabilitation is something that Sheriff Toulon believes in, Verni said. With a father who grew up in the system and a cousin in jail for murder, Gowins knows all too well what it’s like to come from a struggling background. “It feels like I grew up with you, guys,” he said. “You all have familiar faces even though I don’t know you”.
When Gowins was 10-years-old, he drowned in a swimming pool and was unconscious for four minutes, which left him in a coma for three weeks. When he got out of it, doctors told him he was paralyzed from the waist down and may never walk again. Gowins also had zero recollection of his life prior to the incident. Relearning everything, from walking to talking, inspired him to fight for what he wanted. Eventually, he found his passion for football. A passion, that kept him focused and more importantly, out of trouble.
Gowins related living in the hood to the cut-throat industry of the NFL. After going undrafted in the 2019 NFL Draft, the running back was invited to the New York Giants rookie mini-camp. After the three-day try out, he remains a free agent. “All it takes is one mistake and you’re cut… in my case, football. But this also applies to life,” he said. “With every mistake you make, the window closes a little more and more.”
The key, Gowins said, to getting out of jail and staying out is having someone in your corner rooting for you. He even gave out his phone number and Instagram handle so that the young men could reach out to him when they got out of Riverhead. “You don’t need 10-20 people, just one with love to get you over the hump,” he said. The Stony Brook University alum is in the works of setting up a nonprofit with his manager, Henry Francois, 32, from Medford, to help kids from low-income communities. Back in April, Gowins met with children at Stony Brook Hospital to share his message, give back, and spread hope. “It’s for kids who don’t have anything to go home to,” said the Bellporter.
Gowins hopes to help people struggling with homelessness, hardships in their home life, finding jobs, in jail, and those who want a mentor. He went on to suggest every inmate reach out to him when they’re released under the condition that they can answer, “What will I do when I’m under pressure”? An 18-year-old named Nigel, from Coram, has been in the facility for three months and will serve time until May 2020. “He influenced us all today,” said Nigel. “I’m not gonna fall under pressure.” With plans to finish his GED in jail, Nigel hopes to go on to become a plumber. The first step when he gets out will be to get a job as well as avoid people, places, and things that could land him back in jail.
“Every step you take from here on out must be a decision,” Gowins said. “You can’t just do things because you feel like doing it anymore.” Temptation and money are the root of all evil, Gowins said. He asked every inmate to utilize the time in jail to look inside themselves and see what they want to do with the rest of their lives. “Find something you love, attack it, and the money will follow,” he said. “You can’t live life without a plan or else you’re just walking in circles.”