January 27th, 2010 18:13 EST
Judyth Piazza chats with Bobby Petrocelli, Author of 10 Seconds Will Change Your Life
TEN SECONDS CAN CHANGE A LIFE WHEN A DRUNKEN DRIVER KILLED HIS WIFE IN 1984, KIDS SAVED BOBBY PETROCELLI`S SOUL. NOW HE`S WORKING HARD TO RETURN THE FAVOR
It seemed odd, at first, to meet Bobby Petrocelli at a bar named Cheers, where everybody knows your name.
Bobby doesn`t drink, never has, and he has little reason to hang around people who do because of what happened to him 9 years ago, when a drunken Texas yahoo in a Ford pickup piled into Bobby Petrocelli`s life at 70 mph.
Bobby cuts his own path, though, and after a couple of minutes of small talk it was clear that he`d be comfortable anywhere, with anyone. Even at a shopping-mall bar named after a TV show.
If it had been the genuine Cheers, the Boston tavern run by a baseball-refugee bartender, they surely would have known Bobby`s name. Petrocelli. ``Say,`` someone would have said, ``you family to Rico?`` Rico was a Boston legend, a power-hitting infielder for the Red Sox. He`s Bobby`s uncle.
Which is only a small part of Bobby Petrocelli`s story, which he tells with the karate-sock hand gestures and the lock-and-load dramatics of a Brooklyn kid from a big Italian family. It`s all in his new book, ``Triumph Over Tragedy,`` which Bobby barely mentioned because he hadn`t dropped by Cheers to sell books.
He`s selling second chances now, and hope, and faith. He`s been drumming those virtues on the road nationwide since he quit his job more than a year ago as a guidance counselor at Great Bridge High School.
At Great Bridge he could reach kids by the dozens, maybe by the hundreds. He`s trying to reach them now by the thousands. Sometimes it`s tough to reach kids, numbed as they are by the screaming-neon-double-bass-stereo messages they hear every day: Buy This, Try That, Buckle Up, Stop The Violence, Use A Raincoat, Just Say No.
Bobby doesn`t preach that stuff. He just asks them to take a few seconds, before they make a decision. Any decision. Ten seconds, he tells them, can change their lives.
That`s the time it took, he figures, for the guy in the pickup truck to make a drunken midnight run at wrecking Bobby`s life.
Bobby had kissed his wife, Ava, good night at about 11:30 that night, late in October 1984. He had a little trouble getting to sleep, running over in his head the things his freshman football squad had done on the field that afternoon.
They`d won. Bobby was on something of a winning streak himself. He and Ava had been married two years and just a few weeks back they`d said goodbye to a string of cracker-box apartments and moved into a big brick home in a new neighborhood in League City, Texas, just south of Houston.
Though just 24, he was teaching and coaching. Ava was working on her master`s degree in psychology and helping in her family`s business. Bobby fell asleep thinking of how well things were going.
An hour later he found himself splayed across the ledge of the shattered bay window in his dining room, bleeding, the smoking stench of something burning foul in his nostrils. A dream, he thought, some freak nightmare. There was a blue-and-white truck parked in the wreckage of his living room. A man got out, like the weird apparition of which bad dreams are made. He looked at Bobby and asked, ``Is there somebody else in the house?``
Adrenaline panic shook Bobby. He clawed his way through the house, snapping light switches that no longer worked, looking for Ava. In a bathroom that still had lights he saw his face in a mirror. He was spitting glass and blood and there was a hole clear through one cheek. He could see his tongue through it.
He went back to the living room, where the apparition still stood, leaning casually against the door of the Ford pickup. Underneath the truck was a tangle of mattress and bedding. Something in it moved.
Hysterical, Bobby tried to lift the truck. He shouted for the driver to help, but the guy didn`t budge. Bobby ran from the house, screaming for help. An ambulance crew finally subdued him and took him to a hospital.
A short time later a police chaplain broke the news: ``Your wife did not make it. Your wife is dead.``
It`s not uncommon for people to find their faith after something like that. But Bobby Petrocelli had never lost his. Faith was just a part of the package with Bobby, as much a piece of him as his arms or his legs. He`s not one of those guys who asks if you`ve been saved, or wonders aloud if you`d like to attend his church. We hadn`t prayed over the nachos that came as the after-lunch Cheers crowd dwindled to nothing, as Bobby went on with the story.
It was faith - and a top-ranked baseball program - that had led the Italian kid from Brooklyn on a journey to Oklahoma, to Oral Roberts University, where he and Ava met. Friends from those college days put their lives on hold and headed to Texas to help Bobby and Ava`s family deal with their loss.
The yahoo`s pickup truck had snapped Bobby`s left arm and burned deep tar-and-rubber skid marks across his body. He had 50 stitches in his head. His pals bathed him and dressed him and headed him out the door for the hardest day of his life.
A hurricane was blowing up off the Gulf of Mexico the day they buried Ava. A 20-minute drive to the cemetery stretched to two hours as impossible sheets of rain drowned Houston. At graveside, the pastor cut it short because only a few could fit under the tent and everybody else was drenched.
Hobbling back to the limousine, Bobby stopped to take a look back over his shoulder. What he saw, beyond the casket, beyond the funeral tent, would bend his life again.
``This school where I was teaching, Santa Fe High School, had a student body of 900. Eight hundred and fifty of those kids were there, standing out there in a hurricane, on a school day. I saw girls in their best dress-up high heels standing ankle-deep in the mud. Guys from the football team, big 6-foot-4 studs, were standing there with tears running down their faces.
``I will never forget that for the rest of my life. Nobody had to tell those 850 kids to come, nobody had to tell them to dress up in their best clothes and be on their best behavior.
``They did it out of love, they showed that they loved me so much they would do anything for me. I knew I`d spend the rest of my life paying that back, working with young people, trying to have some positive impact on their lives.``
They say the flesh heals a lot faster than the spirit, and that`s the way it went for Bobby after the crash. Sainthood is a lot harder than it looks, so don`t look for Bobby to apply. He admits there were times, and still are, that he`d have given anything to get his hands around the neck of the guy who drove that Ford pickup through his life. But he knew his life`s clock would stop right there, at a moment half-past a black Texas midnight, unless he forgave the guy.
``Yeah, I forgive him. But I`m always careful how I explain that. It`s not like I`d tell this guy, `Hey, pal, thanks for driving a truck through my house, thanks a bunch for killing my wife, thanks for only doing four months in jail - which was a joke - and now let`s you and me be pals.`
``Did he apologize? No. I never met him, never heard from him. But I`m not responsible for him, I`m responsible for what I do with my own life. And if I`d made his apology a condition, I`d still be angry.``
That release allowed Bobby to move on. He headed back to New York, met Suzy there - ``Twice blessed, man, I`m telling you`` - married her in 1989, and settled into teaching at Great Bridge. Last year, he quit his job to go on the road full-time with his story.
There`s a popular skit on ``Saturday Night Live`` that pokes fun at motivational speakers. A fat gas-bag in greasy hair and nerd glasses hitches his pants up and bellows at the kids that if they don`t shape up, ``You`ll wind up like me, living in a van down by the river.``
Bobby`s talks aren`t like that. No preaching, no lectures. A lot of humor, a little advice on how to build a solid foundation in life, and how important it is to stop for just 10 seconds.
He likes the kids. He knows it`s wrong to believe we`ve somehow bred a generation of mumbling, self-indulgent whiners with MTV minds and credit-card hearts. He knows this is wrong because he once watched 850 of them stand still in a Gulf Coast hurricane just because they thought he needed a little bit of their love.
All he wants now is to give a little of it back.
For More Information: www.10seconds.org