Starting Over

From Pro Football Player to Doctor of Physical Therapy, One Man Found His True Calling

June 19, 2019
At PNR Physical Therapy, Jermaine Lee puts into practice the core skills that he learned in class, from hands-on manipulation to working with patients in a professional setting.

All through elementary school, high school and college, Jermaine Lee lived and breathed football. Then, at the age of 22, his dream came true. He was signed as a defensive end for the Canadian Pro Football League team, the Edmonton Eskimos. Two years later, like many football players, an injury changed everything. With a bum hamstring, Lee was released from the team and suddenly the life he had trained and planned for was finished. For 24-year-old Lee, it was time to start over.


“My mom was my backbone,” Lee recalls. “She really helped and encouraged me,” he says, looking back. Lee returned home to Long Island, enrolled in Nassau Community College and committed himself to taking additional college classes that would prepare him for his next chapter. “I wanted to use what I’d learned as an athlete in a setting where I could help people,” he says. Initially, Lee worked as a sports trainer but soon he turned his sights to something more substantial. “I wanted more,” he explains. Lee decided to obtain the training needed to become a physical therapist so that he could really make a difference in the lives of people with whom he worked.

“That was an intense time,” recalls Lee. “I was supporting myself doing sports training, going to school to beef up my college transcript and volunteering at a physical therapy center to build up my resume.”


Unfortunately, Lee’s first application to graduate school was rejected. “I was disappointed but I wasn’t going to give up,” he recalls. Lee doubled down, reworked his application and applied again the following year. Dr. Anthony Polemeni, former Vice President of the Touro College Division of Graduate Studies and a friend of the family, encouraged Lee to apply to the Doctor of Physical Therapy program at Touro's School of Health Sciences (SHS). Lee was accepted at Touro and another school, ultimately deciding to attend Touro, due to Polemeni’s encouragement “But that was just the beginning,” he explains. “I was a football player. My mother didn’t even finish high school. I had a lot of anxiety about the demands of the program and doing schoolwork that required courses in physiology, neuroscience, pharmacology.”


One of the factors that helped in Lee’s ultimate success was the mentoring relationships he developed at SHS, particularly with his professor, Dr. Shira Weiner. Mentoring is a critical part of the Physical Therapy program. “From orientation on, all our students are assigned to an advisor who is their first point of contact,” explains Dr. Weiner. “But, really, the entire faculty is there for them. We all know the students on a first-name basis by the end of week one of the program. There is a collective commitment to make sure that our students succeed.” At SHS, when a student asks a professor for assistance, they help the student find ways to succeed. Sometimes, they’ll re-teach a course section that was particularly troublesome. Or, they’ll help them find a student to tutor them or connect them with a study group.


Although not Lee’s “official” advisor, when Dr. Weiner first met him in her anatomy class, the two of them clicked. “I could see immediately that he possessed the soft skills necessary for helping people,” she explains. “There was a kindness, an empathy and a gentleness that is so needed with patients. I just had an intuitive sense that I could help him with what we call the ‘hard skills,’ which is the clinical and academic work.”

For Lee, Dr. Weiner was more than an advisor. “She was like a life coach for me. She was there for me. She would say, ‘Jermaine, you can do this. You played professional football—I know you can do this.’” After failing a course, a devastated Lee sought out Dr. Weiner. “She went to bat for me,” recalls Lee. Together, they developed new approaches for mastering challenging material, including flashcards for self-quizzing and finding a study partner. Lee retook the course, aced it and triumphantly graduated in 2017.


Now happily working as a supervisor and physical therapist at PRN Physical Therapy in Hicksville, Long Island, where he sees a range of orthopedic, cardiac rehab and stroke patients, Lee stays in touch regularly with Dr. Weiner. “I value her thoughts and advice about how to approach challenging cases or various treatments,” he says.

Although he no longer plays competitive sports, fitness remains an important part of Lee’s daily life. He currently works out with weights three times a week and does daily cardio workouts by jogging, biking or doing 30 minutes on the elliptical machine. Looking back at his journey, Lee grows philosophical. “There’s a quote I live by,” he says. “You will be remembered more for your kindness than any success you could possibly attain in life. This is true for Dr. Weiner. I don’t remember many of the teachers who taught me subjects. Although Dr. Weiner taught anatomy, what I remember most is the way she encouraged me and believed in me when I couldn’t be there for myself.”