Jeff Queiroga, son of Portuguese immigrants and father of some terrific community chemistry, got a haircut Wednesday from Leigh DiLeonardo in Milford. It was his first in 2 1/2 years.
“I was ready to go in March,” the Brien McMahon football coach said, “but obviously all this hit with COVID-19. So I had to wait a little longer.
“My wife, Megan, likes my long hair, but she agreed it was time. It was the longest it ever had been. Listen, I’m a dude. I don’t take care of my hair like women do. It was all in knots, twisted and tangled. She’s like, ‘This is getting ridiculous.’”
So with hair salons and barbershops reopened, Queiroga, a chemistry and forensics teacher at McMahon in Norwalk, got his hair cut for the best of reasons.
This was his third donation to Wigs For Kids. Queiroga grows his hair out for a couple years to the necessary 12-14 inches — the sweet spot — and then chop, clip, clip, clip.
“Wigs For Kids doesn’t sell its wigs,” Queiroga said. “It’s a nonprofit. I like that. One of my buddies growing up in North Haven, Giancarlo DePascale, was diagnosed with leukemia in elementary school and ended up passing away in middle school. So this is a way for me to kind of give back to pediatric cancer.”
The coach’s hair, of course, is a topic of conversation at McMahon. The kids sometimes call him Tarzan. When he grows his beard, they jokingly call him Jesus. That’ll happen when the teacher with the periodic table only gets his hair cut periodically.
“I guess you can say my hair is part of my persona at school,” Queiroga said. “During the school year, I’ll throw it in a quiz as a bonus question. ‘Should Coach Q cut his hair?’ The kids are always like, ‘No!’”
Queiroga, a quarterback, wide receiver and outside linebacker, had been a good high school player at North Haven. He got offers from some DII schools, but he made a decision to attend UConn in 1999 and focus on his studies. He got his bachelor’s and master’s degree in education at Storrs. Queiroga flirted with the idea of pharmacy, but he also wanted to be a teacher and a coach. He started out with the freshman team at Maloney-Meriden. He’s still on the sidelines and has been more recently certified for physical education.
An assistant at McMahon for 13 years, Queiroga replaced AJ Albano as head coach in 2018. Since taking over, the school has celebrated Pediatric Cancer Awareness month in September with a game and fundraising event.
The man with the long hair isn’t short on community involvement. And what he and fellow McMahon teacher Nick Banas did with Meals for McMahon during the COVID-19 pandemic in Norwalk will not soon be forgotten.
“The last meal was sent out on Tuesday,” Queiroga said.
The plan was as simple as it was profound. Folks would make donations and four restaurants, which had supported McMahon and athletics over the years, would get business to feed families in need from COVID-19. It started out with the families of football players and grew throughout the community.
When it was over, $23,750 had been raised and Partners Cafe and Pizzeria, O’Neill’s Irish Pub and Restaurant, Planet Pizza and Jr’s Deli and Grille of Westport had provided 1,950 meals for nearly 100 families.
“It far exceeded any expectation I ever had,” Queiroga said. “When I first presented the idea to my principal and athletic director, I put the number $4,000 out there. When we first went to remote learning, they told us to prepare for two weeks. There was no way to know how long it would last. Those four restaurants are always helping us out. So we thought it would be cool to get like a $1,000 business for each of them at a time when they needed it and feed people who needed meals for a couple of weeks.”
COVID-19 makes rules of its own, of course. COVID-19 controls the calendar. Yes, his towns Milford and North Haven got hit hard, but Queiroga mentions Stamford and Norwalk and he says simply, “Insane.” Two weeks of meals turned into three months.
Early on, Coach Q got word that a grandparent of one of his players had died from COVID-19. The news hurt. Of the 94 families that received meals, most had a member who fell ill from it. A number had passed. One of his players got COVID-19. He received meals as he recovered.
“I went down to Norwalk a couple of times, went to the school, delivered graduation lawn signs for senior football players and it was totally different, really bad,” Queiroga said. “Thankfully, it’s much better now.
“Obviously we’re really proud of what we did. Faculty, football parents, other families, I’m getting texts and emails thanking me all the time. It makes you feel good. Talking to the restaurant owners and hearing the stories they hear, people coming in, giving donations, wanting to be part of it. It definitely rallied the community.”
Queiroga’s parents had grown up poor. When they immigrated, they didn’t speak English. His mom was from a family of 10, his dad from a family of 6. His mom continued to cook every night when he grew up. He said he went out to eat maybe twice a year as a kid. Over dinner, he heard stories of people who helped his parents when they came to America. Jeff was listening.
Queiroga stopped at O’Neill’s to drop off a donation from the football team one day. He struck up a conversation with owner Ollie O’Neill and Queiroga said they drew some comparisons to the weeks following Sept. 11, 2001.
“After 9/11, everyone was nicer to one another,” Queiroga said. “There’s definitely that. He said people were calling the restaurant and just wanted to do something to help.
“Getting the stimulus check, we got donations from that. A lot of my friends, me and my wife, we’re fortunate to still be working and got checks. People were saving money on gas, daycare, not going out to restaurants. One of my line coaches owns Jr’s and people in Westport donated.”
Along with Manchester, Brien McMahon is the most diverse high school in Connecticut. Hispanics, black, white, Asian, immigrants who don’t have English as a first language. His football players reflect the student population.
“It’s great,” Queiroga said. “I’m telling you there are rarely any fights in our school and they don’t deal with race. You see a lunch table and they’re all sitting together.”
Still, as he prepares his team for next season with Zoom meetings for offense, defense and physical conditioning, there is time to discuss matters such as the protests and racial equality. The chemistry teacher wants to keep the chemistry strong.
And the hair?
“I’ll probably keep it short through the summer and then start growing it back out in September,” Queiroga said. “My wife says she likes the new ’do, but she likes it longer and I love rocking the long hair.”