Jackie and Lou Mongelli realized almost immediately that something wasn’t right about their newborn child.
The couple was still in the hospital when they noticed the baby would kick often with both legs, raise his left arm, and attempt to clench a fist.
“But the right arm was just there by his side, not moving at all,” Lou Mongelli said. “The doctor came in and looked at him and that’s when it was discovered.”
Nick Mongelli was diagnosed with Erb’s Palsy, a paralysis of the arm caused by nerve damage during birth.
“He was 5 days old when they started him in physical therapy,” his father said. “He had a pediatric neurologist, all these doctors. It was a challenge right from the start.”
Fast forward two decades. Nick Mongelli still has limited use of the right arm, which is naturally his dominant side. The elbow can’t fully extend, the range of motion in his shoulder is restricted and it’s a struggle for him to turn his palm upward.
Still, while at Marlboro High School he excelled in four sports. And he led the baseball team to a state championship, dominating as a left-handed pitcher.
“I always thought of myself as an underdog, even if I didn’t say it,” the 21-year-old said. “I started my life at a disadvantage and had to find ways to work around it. I think that made me the person I am.”
That person now is a former collegiate athlete with aspirations of a professional football career. He hopes to follow in the footsteps of Joe Panik and Tyler Lydon, local athletes who were drafted by MLB and the NBA, respectively.
Mongelli starred as a placekicker and punter at SUNY Cortland and, after garnering the interest of pro scouts and hiring an agent, he and his family will watch intently the NFL Draft, which runs through Saturday April 23-25.
His being selected is a long shot, and he understands that. Aside from a few exceptional prospects who get picked in the late rounds, kickers usually are signed as undrafted free agents days later.
The other obvious hurdle, of course, is the fact that only 11 former Div. III athletes were on NFL rosters last season, and Stephen Hauschka of the Buffalo Bills was the only kicker.
So what are the chances?
But what were the chances Nick Mongelli would even be this close to realizing what for most is a pipe dream?
Field goals and lofty goals
After a decorated career at Cortland that included three all-conference selections and the designation as the Empire 8 Special Teams Player of the Year in 2018, Mongelli participated in the HBCU Spirit of America Bowl in January.
The annual exhibition showcases all-stars from the lower levels of college football, including the FCS and Division II and III, with NFL and Canadian Football League personnel typically in attendance.
There were representatives from “about 10” NFL teams there, some of whom spoke to him and expressed interest, Mongelli said, and he has since been contacted by teams in the Canadian and indoor leagues.
“He’s a great competitor and has enough pure talent to be a kicker in the NFL,” said Kyle Pignatiello, the SUNY Cortland specialist coach and a former Division I kicker. “I think he's got a legitimate shot to play somewhere professionally. Which league that is will depend on the needs of teams and who's willing to give him a chance.”
Mongelli also has experience as a punter and kickoff specialist. His strong leg, 215-pound frame and athleticism have garnered attention and he has been featured on a few scouting websites, including NFLDraftDiamonds.com, which profiles under-the-radar prospects. He recently has turned heads with footage of his precise field goals from 60-plus yards while training.
“Being a kicker, I don’t think the ‘small school’ thing is held against you as much as it would be at other positions,” Nick Mongelli said. “A 40-yard field goal is a 40-yard field goal, whether it’s at Cortland or a major Division I school. The uprights and field dimensions are the same. The biggest difference is the level of exposure.”
Mongelli believes the interaction with scouts and assistant coaches at the showcase in Virginia was his introduction to a wider audience. At minimum, it removed the anonymity.
He also is buoyed by conversations he’s had with Seattle Seahawks kicker Jason Myers, a Marist College alum who emerged from relative obscurity. Myers made the 2018 Pro Bowl as a member of the New York Jets.
Mongelli said he direct messaged Myers on Instagram, asking for advice and the perspective of a small-school standout who made it big. He fully expected that query to be ignored.
“But he replied to me and we’ve talked occasionally ever since,” Mongelli said, still sounding surprised. “I was so appreciative of that. He told me to expect a lot of people to say, ‘No,’ but all I need is one person to give me a shot. And if I get that opportunity, I have to run with it.”
He hired Arthur Weiss, a longtime sports agent who has represented more than 100 NFL players, many of whom were once long-shot underdogs like Wayne Chrebet and Chris Hogan. Weiss has shopped Mongelli’s highlight videos and set up interviews with teams.
The COVID-19 pandemic has, of course, affected the draft process, forcing the cancellation of pro days and nixing in-person meetings. Instead, everything is being done digitally.
The NFL draft itself is being done virtually – as the WNBA’s was last week – with team officials making their selections and communicating with Commissioner Roger Goodell electronically.
With the coronavirus prompting the closure of schools, Mongelli moved back home to Marlboro and is with his parents and younger brother, Sam Mongelli, whose freshman season on the Sacred Heart University baseball team was cut short.
Nick Mongelli’s schedule over the last month has centered around kicking practices on the nearby Marlboro High School field, weightlifting in the basement, and more time spent in front of a computer than he could’ve imagined, video conferencing team executives and doing homework. The SUNY Cortland semester is ongoing with online classes and the senior is completing his degree in Sports Management.
“Nick is one of those kids who’s always been determined and never stops working or trying to achieve something,” Lou Mongelli said. “Making it in pro football is rare and he knows that. But he wouldn’t be himself if he didn’t at least dip his foot in the water.”
Molded by adversity
Nick Mongelli weighed 10 pounds at birth and that size led to complications during labor. His head was bent backwards, and his neck stretched as he was being delivered, which caused a brachial plexus injury.
Nerves were damaged in his neck and shoulder, weakening the signal from his brain to the right arm and leaving it partially paralyzed.
“It took a lot of physical therapy just for him to be able to move the arm,” his father said. “They were able to restore some range of motion, but not entirely.”
So, as he grew, Nick Mongelli became a lefty by necessity. He can grip a pen and pronate the right hand enough to write, but most other things are done with his left hand.
He has worked to improve dexterity with the right arm, sometimes forcing himself to reach for objects in a cupboard or brush his teeth with that hand. But the arm is noticeably shorter and not as muscled.
“My family helped me adapt and basically become left-handed,” said Mongelli, who is a right-footed kicker. “It took a lot of repetition with everything to get accustomed to it, but it eventually becomes second nature.”
That his son knew nothing else, Lou Mongelli said, made the transition easier.
He became a basketball standout, helping lead Marlboro to the state Class B final as a lefty sharpshooter. A converted soccer player, he became an all-state kicker for the football team and helped the Iron Dukes win three Section 9 championships. He also was the ace of the baseball team and was named a CBS MaxPreps All-American after leading Marlboro to its first state title.
Nick Mongelli went on to play baseball for a season at Cortland, his fastball reaching 86 mph.
He became the Red Dragons’ starting punter and kickoff specialist as a sophomore, but the most significant growth took place the following offseason.
“He matured a lot as a person that year, which led to his improvement on the field,” Pignatiello said. “He started listening more and got himself into good habits. From there, we went to work on his mechanics.”
They worked to eliminate his “crunch and swipe” kicking style, having him more upright and fluid in the approach to generate more power in the leg swing and better consistency in striking the “sweet spot” of the ball, Pignatiello explained. Mongelli also has worked with a private coach, Ed Groth, of Connecticut-based PowerKicking.
The result was him making 8 of 9 field goals and 47 of 50 point-after tries while averaging 36.4 yards per punt.
It was a delight, his father said, sitting in the stands and hearing Cortland fans talk about the kicker.
“I’ve been proud of him his whole life, but there are some moments that make you smile,” Lou Mongelli said. “Hearing the fans talk like, ‘If we can just get in range, I know he can make it from there. He’s good.’”
Teammates and friends had similar confidence in Nick Mongelli's ability, providing the initial encouragement for him to pursue a pro career. He now might be within days, or weeks, from that becoming a reality.
“We’ll watch and be excited,” Lou Mongelli said of the draft. “But we’re also realistic. We know the odds aren’t in his favor.”
Seldom have they ever been. And seldom has it mattered.