The Brentwood Boys: A Band of Brothers
A BAND OF BROTHERS
For many reasons, the Gomez-Perez brothers of Brentwood stood out to Carlos Restrepo, an elementary school PE teacher who was a recent graduate of the physical education program at Ithaca College. A significant part of it was that his early years had mirrored theirs. Their parents had emigrated from Latin America, and their fathers had receded into the backgrounds of their lives.
Both Restrepo and Beach helped the boys with their wrestling. As just an eighth-grader, Ricardo Gomez-Perez was soon dazzling coaches and dazing varsity opponents, some of them five years older than him. A few years later, Ricardo’s brother Alex would wrestle varsity as a seventh-grader.
The relationships Beach and Restrepo formed with the Gomez-Perez boys felt familiar to them, even as their roles had shifted from mentees to mentors. They dusted off the lessons they’d learned from their own coach, Panariello.
“[Panariello] guided me and motivated me,” Beach said. “So I kind of wanted to become that person. When I come across kids who’ve endured misfortunes, it’s easy for me to relate to them. They’ve missed the same things I have—things like playing catch in the backyard.”
Even when he was just fixing things around the house, Beach would bring the Gomez-Perez boys over. The ruse was “to help him.” The real reason was to bond. The coaches saw promise in the boys’ lives, even when their young lives lacked promises. Adults had largely taught them that uncertainty was the only real thing they could count on.
That was definitely true for the boys’ father, who was an alcoholic and absentee parent. They would sometimes see him riding around town on a broken-down bicycle, but they didn’t have much contact with him.
Their biological mother had fled a civil-war-torn El Salvador, leaving behind a son. With government death squads roaming the country, she packed what she could carry and fled on foot to Guatemala and then through Mexico to the United States. She finally joined family members in Long Island, where she eventually gave birth to Ricardo and Alex. At times she worked two or three jobs, but a language barrier kept her from getting better employment and from conveying to the social workers who came around just how much she loved her sons. They questioned her long hours and her drinking.
Then, late one night in Stony Brook Hospital, she sat at the bedside of Ricardo and Alex’s older brother—who had been deathly ill with food poisoning—and faced a difficult choice. With her older son now stable, she knew she couldn’t afford to lose her job, which was the one thing that kept the state from taking all of her boys from her. So she posted Ricardo and Alex at their brother’s bedside and left for her night job.
When a 911 call went out that some boys had been abandoned at a local hospital, the police officer who came to relieve the pint-sized sentries had the name of a comic book character, and his actions that night were every bit as heroic.
Rather than turn the boys over to the system, Lt. Steve Streicher became the system. Streicher doesn’t know exactly when it was that he officially unofficially had stepsons, or when he became a fully committed part of their lives. His involvement began only as a series of selfless acts, one naturally flowing into the next. Every time the Gomez-Perez boys called, Streicher picked up. New socks? A parent–teacher conference? A ride to practice? Same time next week?
In an old movie cliché, a cop who says he’s close to retirement always gets dragged back in. So it would be with Streicher. He got the boys into wrestling, and soon his 90-minute round-trips to practices extended into treks to tournaments all over the East Coast.
Streicher has absolutely no legal connection to the boys. If our ties to our biological family are tight, what about our ties to those who can come and go at any time and for any reason?
Like Streicher, the Calderon family became inextricably intertwined with the Gomez-Perez boys. It started with Alex having dinner at the home of his teammates. After a while, he would eat there before and after a match. Sleeping over then made sense. Eventually, he started leaving clothes there.
Little by little, he became a member of the Calderon family. Cindy Calderon became “Mama Calderon,” not just to Alex but to seemingly half of Long Island’s wrestling community as well. Ricardo was soon living there, too. To the boys, Calderon’s twin sons soon went from teammates to brothers, and her husband eventually became “Pops.”
If the Calderon house was a warm and inviting ocean, the brothers, like cautious explorers, had waded in. Sometimes Ricardo would run away to a friend’s house for weeks or months until “Pops” came looking for him.
“Are you done? Do you have it all out of your system?” Pops would ask. “Are you ready to come home, son?”
Ricardo smiles recalling that moment, his sheepishness giving way to a proud grin as he zooms in on that last word.
“Son. That’s what he called me. Son. ‘Are you ready to come home, son.’”
And he was.
Alex Gomez-Perez '15 is studying childhood education and wants to return to Brentwood to teach and coach. Photo by Adam Baker
What’s most amazing about the Gomez-Perez brothers isn’t that they made it or even how. It’s clearly why. Why did so many people in two different communities work so hard to help them? Alex is Christian and credits divine intervention. Ricardo is still trying to make sense of it all.
In wrestling, each “escape” earns one point, but for generations of Brentwood High School athletes, an escape is worth much more. The story of each boy’s escape is passed down through the decades as proof of what a life can become if he believes in the program and eventually, in himself. The victories off the mat are even more spectacular than those on it, and the list of vanquished foes is long: a socioeconomic cycle, the pull of a gang, a childhood that saw the loss—one way or another—of a parent.
Regardless of what he was escaping, each Brentwood boy was helped along the way by a mentor, an Ithaca College graduate, who was—like the mentor—the first in his family to go to college. After each wrestler graduated, he made his way back to Brentwood, intent on helping other young wrestlers blaze their own trails to college.
After all, there are positives to escaping, but there are also positives to coming home.