Editor’s note: First in a series looking at some of the high student-athletes who are graduating this week.
GIBSONTON — It was the summer of 2013 and Vincent Safy Jr. was looking forward to preparing for his last season as a member of the East Bay High football team.
But while his teammates spent their summer days involved in strength and conditioning training, Safy had to spend his time strengthening something else – his family.
One late night last June, Vincent Safy Sr., Safy’s father, experienced a headache unlike any he had felt before. His speech became garbled and he lost his balance. The family decided it was best to take him to Brandon Regional Hospital. Vincent Safy Jr. threw his father over his shoulder and carried him to the car.
“It was very quick and shocking how it happened out of nowhere,” Safy Jr. said. “Before we left, he looked at me, kind of crying, and he said, ‘I love you’ and he said it like he thought that would have been the last thing he said to me.”
Safy Sr. had to be flown to Tampa General Hospital. It was a brain aneurism. Three aneurism’s were found in total.
Every night for a month, Vincent Safy Jr., after his shift ended at a local grocery, would spend his nights holding his father’s hand at the hospital. Football was put to the side. At 17, he realized being a reassuring figure for his younger siblings was more important. His two youngest brothers, Dayne and Brayden, are autistic.
“He really helped out around the house,” said Vincent Safy Sr. “He helped with his siblings. He really helped his little sister. He got her ready for her eighth-grade year. He helped with my wife. He’s a real responsible young man.”
Vincent Safy Sr. was released from the hospital in time to witness his son’s senior year and the most historic season in school history. East Bay captured the program’s first district title in 40 years and won the team’s first state playoff game. Throughout the team’s record year, Safy Jr., an offensive lineman, thought daily of his father.
“I played every game with my dad in my head,” Vincent Safy Jr. said. “My dad is in the stands, I’m grateful for that and I’m playing for him. He taught me everything I know and this one is for him, that’s what I thought every game. Every single game.”
Safy Jr. played four of five positions on the offensive line and also at tight end, paving the way for more than 2,100 yards in rushing in the 2013 season.
“When it’s all said and done, I think Vinny started 27 straight games dating back to his junior year,” said East Bay head football coach Frank LaRosa. “He’s the brains behind the operation up front. When we want a check or a call or someone to give an example of how a drill should be, my offensive line coach in his raspy, salty voice would shout “Vinny” and call for him and he’d oblige. He was an incredible piece of this puzzle this year.”
Safy Jr. will play at North Carolina Wesleyan, a Division III program, beginning this fall. Though Division III schools do not offer athletic scholarships, Safy has earned enough financial aid through academic scholarships. In May, he was one of 70 student-athletes in Hillsborough County to receive a $1,000 scholarship from Tampa businessman Bob Gries at the second annual Heart of a Champion gala.
After football, Safy Jr. intends to become a policeman. Protecting people, he learned, is a natural gift.
“My whole life has been protecting,” he said. “I protect my siblings, that’s always on my mind. Coach might have seen that and put me on the offensive line. My only job is to protect the quarterback and the running back and I take that personal. I do my best to protect the ones I love.”
The past year, through the adverse events he experienced on and off the field, Safy Jr. learned something about himself, a trait his father and coach already knew existed deep within.
“It taught me always to push forward,” he said. “Never give up hope, no matter what happens. Don’t give up, ever.”