From tackling players to tackling plaque

From tackling players to tackling plaque

Former Gator football player starts first year of dental school

By Bridget Higginbotham

UF dental student Joey Sorrentino played special teams for the Gators./Photo by Jesse S. Jones

Having traded in his No. 39 jersey for scrubs, Joey Sorrentino, 24, watched most of this season’s football games from the library instead of from the field.

A year ago he was a captain of the top team in the country and a member of the winningest senior class in Southeastern Conference history. Now, Sorrentino is just another first-year dental student studying to keep his grades up and options open.

“Being a smaller guy, most people laugh when they hear I play football, ‘There’s no way,’” Sorrentino said. “Which is fine with me. I’ve always enjoyed the unassuming underdog role.”

But this underdog is no underachiever. The 5-foot-7-inch walk-on earned a scholarship position on special teams and played in 42 games, including two national championships.

“Joey earned everyone’s respect,” said James Smith, a former teammate. “Honestly, he outworked everyone on the team. Pound for pound, he was the strongest guy on the team.”

Sorrentino said that balancing football and academics as well as dealing with the pressure of coaches and fans prepared him for the grind of dental school.

“The four years I played football I had never been so overly stressed in my entire life — mentally, physically and emotionally,” he said. “It just wears on you, and it helps you as a growing person to deal with all the pressure.”

Sorrentino always knew he wanted to go into health care — his mother, a nurse, and father, a pharmacist, own a medical research company and met while working at Shands.

Shadowing a friend’s father last year inspired Sorrentino to become a dentist. The number of people who couldn’t afford necessary treatment touched him. Someday, he hopes to open clinics back home in Ocala with his brother Dante, a Florida International University medical student.

“The community there has given so much to me and dentistry is one way to allow me to give back,” Sorrentino said. “Also, it seemed like a great profession for having a family. I’m a big family guy.”

Staying in Gainesville, Sorrentino has been able to stay close to his youngest siblings: athletic sister Rachel, 14, and musical brother Anthony, 16. As a toddler, Anthony had liver cancer.

“At the time it was an awful thing but it definitely brought our family closer,” Sorrentino said. “It makes you appreciate things, really put it in perspective.”

Remembering what it was like for Anthony during treatment, Sorrentino used his $500 Best Buy gift card from the 2008 Capital One Bowl to purchase a Wii console, video games, a DVD player and DVDs for a children’s hospital.

Sorrentino paid visits to hospitals and camps through the Climb for Cancer Foundation and Goodwill Gators with his teammates. In 2009, he captained the American Cancer Society team during the Gators Strongman Charity Challenge, where the team showed off their summer training for fans.

While dentistry is Sorrentino’s priority, he still finds a little time to play intramural football. He jokes with the Gators’ head trainer about possibly becoming the team’s dentist. It would be a way to give back to the program that gave him so many opportunities.

“I’ve been so blessed, so fortunate with football and really in all aspects in my life,” he said. “I’m very fortunate. I don’t know how else to put it.”