By Peter Schwartz
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It will be a routine that Willie Colon has gone through before.
He’ll ride down Hempstead Turnpike, make a left onto Meadowbrook Place, and then swing down Stadium Road toward Margiotta Hall, where he’ll head to the locker room downstairs and suit up for practice.
Home sweet home!
This Sunday, the Jets will hold a training camp practice at Shuart Stadium on the campus of Hofstra University, their former longtime training camp home. For Colon, the Jets’ starting right guard the past two seasons, it’s a second straight summer return to his alma mater, where he played college football from 2002-05.
“It’s always a good time,” Colon told WFAN.com. “I think for me emotionally it’s seeing my old locker and being in that locker room in that stadium. It always gives me good memories and flashbacks to the good times.”
This year, Colon won’t be the only Hofstra alum on the Jets roster as defensive lineman Stephen Bowen — a college teammate of Colon — will also be back at Shuart Stadium.
“Now he gets to experience the time back at Hofstra,” Colon said. “It will be a special moment for both of us.”
After playing high school football at Cardinal Hayes in the Bronx, Colon was recruited to Hofstra as a defensive lineman but switched to the offensive line after the 2002 season and made 34 consecutive starts at tackle.
Colon was taken by the Steelers in the fourth round of the 2006 NFL Draft and became a fixture on Pittsburgh’s offensive line, starting 62 of 63 games over seven seasons, including all 52 regular-season and playoff games from 2007-09 as the Steelers’ right tackle.
Not bad for a kid from Hofstra, a program that also produced former Jets wide receiver Wayne Chrebet and center John Schmitt, who played on the Super Bowl III team. Hofstra also churned out numerous other NFL players like Marques Colston, Dave Fiore, Lance Schulters and Renauld Williams.
Despite sending all those players to the NFL, Hofstra pulled the plug on its football program after the 2009 season. For Colon, it was a tough pill to swallow. But the news wasn’t a complete surprise — there had been rumors for several years.
“There were talks about it during my senior year,” Colon said. “At the end of the day, because of the alumni and let alone the guys that played in the past, I didn’t think they would be able to do that. But they did.”
And just like that, Hofstra’s two main connections to football were gone in just under two years. In August 2008, the Jets left their longtime headquarters at Hofstra and moved to their new facility in Florham Park, New Jersey. Then, in December 2009, the school gave itself the football death penalty.
Six years later, all the Hofstra Pride alumni can do now is hope that there will be a day when football is back on campus.
“I definitely wish we can get the program back,” Colon said. “I mean, personally I would like to see that, even if we started at D-III and worked our way back into the ranks. I know that there are enough alumni and enough guys in the league that would rally behind the cause and try to make it happen.”
Today, the only football events at Shuart Stadium are high school games, the annual Empire Challenge to benefit the Boomer Esiason Foundation, and the Jets making what has become an annual one-night-only summer return.
Colon went through his first Hofstra night as a Jet last year and knows what to expect on Sunday in his old stomping grounds.
“Last year I got a warm welcome,” he said. “A lot of people still welcomed me back, especially a lot of people that, when I was there, were working in the building. Seeing all those faces and seeing all those friends is pretty special and anytime you can get the fans out supporting us is a great time, so we’re happy.”
So far it’s been a happy summer for Colon, who has played very well and has received most of the first-team reps at right guard. There are still three preseason games left for him to earn the opening day starting job, but so far so good.
“I’m just taking it day by day and taking care of my body and doing whatever I need to do so I can be out there and be productive,” Colon said. “Hopefully when it’s all said and done I’m the right guard for the New York Jets.”
The journey to getting the start on September 13 against the Browns at MetLife Stadium continues on Sunday night on a field, in a stadium, and on a campus that he holds dear to his heart.
For Colon, it will be another bittersweet return to his alma mater. He’ll be back as a member of the hometown team while also reminiscing about the four years he spent at Hofstra and the relationships that he built.
“Just the process and everything I went through at the school and just the guys that I’m still close with to this day and they are lifetime friends,” Colon said. “They are just all good memories.”
There’s no doubt that the many familiar faces still on campus will be welcoming Willie Colon back with open arms as one of the greatest players to ever wear a Pride uniform.
Even though there’s no longer a football program, the powers that be at Hofstra still need to acknowledge Colon’s accomplishments. The school needs to retire his No. 77, and they should put him in their Hall of Fame.
Now that would be a Jet-sized honor for the big man!
Sunday’s Jets Family Night practice at Hofstra begins at 7 p.m. with gates opening at 5:30 p.m. Admission is free but you have to download tickets here.