You had to see it to believe it. Joey Collins led his team out to the mat as the volume was raised on the sound system — the music blasted as WWE wrestler John Cena sang, “Your time is up, my time is now. You can’t see me, my time is now.”
Collins, a senior with Down syndrome, has been on the Port Jefferson wrestling team for four years. He took center stage Dec. 22 during the Port Jefferson Bob Armstrong Tournament.
Facing a Riverhead opponent, Collins started the period on top before his opponent broke free. Face to face, his Blue Waves challenger grabbed his right leg, and instead of taking Collins down, fell on his back, where Collins jumped on the opportunity to hoist up his opponent’s leg for the pin and a win in the consolation match. He said the song he loves got him ready to compete.
“It got me more pumped,” he said. “It was the best moment of my entire career.”
As the mat was slapped three times to decide his fate, the cluster of wrestlers alongside him leaped up in celebration. Collins, engulfed by the excitement and cheers from the crowd, stood up and waved his hands, imploring the fans in attendance to keep up the noise.
“I love being a part of a team,” Collins said. “It’s exciting. I work hard and do something for me that betters myself.”
His father, Joe Collins, was moved by what he’d just witnessed, but said his initial thoughts were a little different based on his son’s reaction.
“Part of me was saying, ‘Jeeze Joey, you need to tone it down a little bit,’” he said, laughing. “He’s not the most gracious celebrator, but the reaction was so positive from everybody and I was really, really pleased that he was enjoying it so much. I felt proud of him and I loved the way he jumped into his coach’s arms and slapped hands with all his teammates. I also thought about how proud Joey’s mother would have been.”
Collins’ mother Mary Beth died last November following a lengthy battle with cancer. The father recalled the first time his son, who became an avid wrestling figurine collector in middle school after idolizing his cousin’s collection, took part in a wrestling match at the end of his freshman year. He had been practicing with the team, but finally competed in his first consolation match, which are matches that don’t factor in to a team’s score for a meet.
“My wife clutched my forearm, seeing his face against the mat looking up at her, and everyone was screaming for him to stay on his belly to keep from getting pinned,” Joe Collins said. “It was very exciting. We were nervous and proud to see him out there. We were thankful and grateful he’s getting the opportunity to play like that with other kids.”
Port Jefferson head coach Mike Maletta said he remembers when Joey Collins’ mother approached him following the Mount Sinai meet.
“She walked over to me very sternly, and I was afraid of how she was going to take it,” he said. “But she put her hand out and said, ‘Thank you,’ and walked away.”
From that moment Collins was hooked. He was used to cheering his teammates on from the side of the mat with Maletta, but finally got the opportunity to compete, although still frequenting the sideline to cheer on friend and teammate Matteo DeVincenzo, a prominent wrestler in the program who won county and state titles.
“It always warms my heart when I see Joey sitting next to the coach and yelling encouragement for kids like Matteo and his older brother Tristan,” Joe Collins said. “It was a nice turnaround for Joey to be encouraging someone else. That was really neat to see.”
DeVincenzo also enjoyed it.
“I thought of Joey just like I thought of anyone else on the team — a wrestler,” DeVincenzo said. “He was a member of the team and deserved to be treated the same as everyone else. It felt great to have Joey’s support. It was evident that he looked up to me and that was gratifying and impactful. Knowing that I was someone that he could use as a model and mentor was very self-fulfilling. It was inspiring working with Joey and watching him grow over the years. He truly grew into a young man on and off the mat. Joey was a symbol of hope and heart for the team. Whenever we were struggling or down in the dumps, one glance at Joey could enhance anyone’s day. If Joey could do it, anyone could.”
Joey Collins said he enjoys the camaraderie between him and his teammates, too, something he said he learned from Maletta.
“He taught me how to become a better wrestler,” Collins said. “He taught me how to train and how to work hard. I love to cheer my team on. I love getting involved with the sport. I love being a wrestler.”
Although Maletta said at first having Collins on the team presented a set of unique challenges, he and the wrestlers have warmed up to their fellow Royal.
“The first year it was a handful,” he said. “I tried to think of how I was going to work with guys that were focused on winning state titles, but by his second year he got better at being in practice. He was able to stay on task longer, and I treated him like every other kid. We try to raise expectations and he wrestled some good matches. Joey goes out there and he wrestles hard no matter what.”
He competed in multiple matches in his sophomore year, and was joined by his twin brother Jack Collins, a football standout who is also currently on the basketball team.
“Wrestling with Joe was a blast,” Jack Collins said. “At practice you could really feel the radiance he gives off when wrestling and learning. Wrestling is a huge part of his life. He loves it and the sport has been good to him. It taught him a lot as well about morals. Athletics have been a great way for me and Joe to connect.”
After missing some of his junior season when his mother passed away, Maletta said he was excited to see Collins return to the team his senior year, noting that he’s one of six “watchmen,” seniors who have been on the team since they were freshman. Last year, none of the seniors had been on the team all four years, and prior to that, there were just two.
“Wrestling was a good distraction for him,” Maletta said. “I told him he’s a senior now, and I’m putting him in matches for real. It would be a disservice for him to not ever really go out there and know what it’s like to win or lose and feel the emotions of the sport.”
Maletta said it’s been a pleasure to watch Collins grow.
“He’s matured in the room, he’s part of the team,” he said. “It’s sad he won’t be in the room next year.”