Posted Jul 8, 2017 at 4:18 PM
Updated Jul 9, 2017 at 10:06 PM
Mark Prince expects to be emotional on the sidelines at Commerce Bank Field at Foley Stadium in Worcester before his Worcester County Wildcats open their New England Football League season at 6:30 p.m. on Saturday, July 15.
“That’s going to complete the circle after everything I went through,” he said while fighting back tears.
At age 40, Prince has returned to the team after a seven-year absence and overcoming a myriad of health and personal problems that had him wishing he were dead. With the support of family, friends and even strangers, Prince is happy and healthy again, and he hopes he can inspire others. His recent Facebook post of making the Wildcats’ team and the obstacles that he’s overcome drew 365 likes and 305 comments in a week.
“I just want to inspire people to do positive things and never give up,” Prince said while sitting in his living room in Webster last week. “Changing your life around means a lot to me.”
Prince said he spent about two years off and on in jail for traffic violations and assault and battery while working as a bouncer. But after the end of a relationship, the demons overcame him.
“I think it’s amazing,” Wildcats owner-coach Dennis Faulkner said. “Here’s a guy who at one point thought life was over. So here’s a chance to knock off all his past demons and say he’s overcome them.”
Prince is scheduled to start at offensive guard when the Wildcats open their season against the Mass. State Wolverines of South Hadley. What will matter most to Prince that night will be looking up in the stands to see his parents, his wife, his soon-to-be-adopted daughters, his high school football coach, his friends and everyone who has supported him during his tough times.
“If I get hurt and never play again, that would be enough,” he said. Prince doesn’t expect to see his estranged biological daughter at the game, but he hopes playing for the Wildcats will serve as another sign to her that he has put his life back together.
“I want my daughter to see that I’m a winner,” Prince said. “I want her to understand that I’m a fighter and that her daddy isn’t who people thought I was when I was younger.”
Prince also hopes to be a role model for his new family. Prince married in August and he’s in the process of adopting his wife Katelyn’s daughters, Nya, 11; and Nady, 7. The girls’ rooms are filled with New England Patriots posters and bobbleheads. So what will it be like for Nya to watch Prince play for the Wildcats? “Almost like I’m watching Tom Brady on TV,” Nya said while watching him practice at Elm Park Community School.
Prince is also a big Pats fan who had the Patriots’ logo tattooed over his heart on his 21st birthday. He thinks so highly of Brady, he named his 1-year-old golden retriever, “Brady.”
He played football for coach Al Dhembe at Bay Path Regional in Charlton, and was honored to be asked to serve as a keynote speaker at Dhembe’s surprise retirement party in Sturbridge this past spring.
“My parents are the ones who instilled in me the don’t-give-up attitude,” Prince said of Lorna and Ben Prince, “but who super-charged that was Coach Dhembe. I was never the biggest or fastest or strongest, but my will was insane and he knew that.”
Prince’s Bay Path teammates nicknamed him, “Dark Prince Vader,” because as Prince explained it, he was the only black player on the team, his name was Prince, and Vader was his favorite movie character. Prince embraced the nickname and has a Darth Vader photo, calendar and pillow at his home. His new Wildcats teammates also call him “Dark Prince Vader.”
Prince insists that Darth Vader is a misunderstood character who turned out to be a villain because he had to, not because he wanted to, and he wasn’t as bad as he was made out to be. Prince feels the same way about himself.
Prince started at defensive tackle for the Wildcats in 2009 and 2010, but both seasons ended early due to injury. Laid up for a while due to a torn Achilles tendon, Prince gained more than 100 pounds and ballooned up to well over 400. He turned to alcohol and got involved in gangs. After a previous relationship broke up and he became estranged from his now 19-year-old daughter, he fell into a deep, dark depression.“I wanted to die,” Prince said. “I didn’t want to be around.”
His Jehovah’s Witness faith helped prevent him from attempting suicide. But for about a year, Prince was homeless in Worcester while working odd jobs here and there.
“I was depressed,” he said. “I didn’t want to do anything. I couldn’t do anything. I was too depressed and I drifted.”
He stayed with friends at first, then slept at shelters and on benches at Elm Park.
He said more than 20 friends died from gang violence, drug overdose or car accidents.
“I didn’t sell drugs myself,” he said. “I was involved in the activity in the gangs, delivering, stuff like that.”
The Dimock Center in Boston, which helps African-American and Latino residents get back on their feet, became the answer to Prince’s prayers.
He began to turn his life around, but his struggles didn’t end.
On his way out of a Red Sox game, Prince was hit by a car on Lansdowne Street and flipped over the hood. He suffered a fractured skull and left hand. A year later, he was stabbed in his left side during an attempted robbery on Main Street in Worcester. He fought off his attackers, but while running away he was hit by a car and was in a coma for three days.
While staying in Charlton with his mother, he reconnected with his old friends through Facebook. He continued to suffer the after effects of the coma and he battled with his weight and depression, but plenty of friends and family offered lots of support. That summer, he met his wife.“If I ever think of giving up or doubting myself,” Prince said of Katelyn, “she smacks me back into reality and reminds me of how far I’ve come.”
Two summers ago, a tumor was removed from his liver. The tumor was benign, but Prince said traces of cancer were found in his blood. While undergoing chemotherapy, he served as keynote speaker at his 20th Bay Bath reunion. His message was to never give up. A few months later, two benign tumors were removed from his neck. Prince said the surgery left the left side of his face paralyzed. As a result, he can’t lift his left eyebrow or smile with the left side of his mouth.
Weighing more than 400 pounds, Prince suffered from back and knee pain, and seizures. He was so overweight he was collecting disability. He had to sleep with a CPAP machine to breath at night.“Again, I was like my hero, Darth Vader,” Prince joked about his heavy breathing.
One day while sitting in his living room, he began to breath heavy and sweat after tying his shoes. He looked up at a photo of his wife and daughters and began to cry. So he decided to see Dr. Quang Le for help. After Prince detailed all his physical ailments, Dr. Le jolted him by asking, “How do you want me to sign your death certificate?”
Prince realized he needed to take drastic action. When Prince posted on Facebook that he was about to enter the year-long weight-loss program to prepare for the gastric-sleeve surgery, former Shepherd Hill quarterback George Walker showed up at his door. The two hadn’t seen each other in 15 years, but Walker offered to help.
“That started my comeback,” Prince said.
Last March, Prince underwent the surgery. The 6-footer is down to 280 pounds. “They cut out three-quarters of my stomach,” Prince said. “Right now, my stomach is the shape and size of a small banana.”
After the surgery, Prince decided to join Pure Fitness in Webster. When he told his life story to Nikki Holland, who owns the gym with her husband, Scott, she offered him a free membership and arranged a job for him selling health and weight loss supplements. He also sells cars online.
After losing more than 100 pounds, Prince decided to show that he was all the way back to his old self by rejoining the Wildcats. So he called Faulkner asking for a tryout.
“I thought it was great,” Faulkner said. “To have an opportunity to have a guy who was here before and knows what we’re looking to do and has a little bit more veteran experience and then also knowing his story.”
Someone aged 40 playing semi-pro football with most of his teammates in their mid-20s is an interesting story in itself, never mind everything Prince has had to overcome.
—Contact Bill Doyle at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @BillDoyle15