It was never as easy as praying for her son to wake up happy and healthy. Paula Vercollone's nightly benediction often carried a more desperate appeal.
"I would kneel down at Luke's bedside and pray just to like him," she said of the second-oldest of her 11 children. "It was that bad at times. Luke cried a lot. He was an intense child who could be very difficult. My husband, Jack, and I were told [by doctors] there was nothing wrong with Luke and that it was just genetics and the way he was wired. It was something we had to deal with."
And while her therapy became prayer, her son's became sports, especially soccer. "Sports gave Luke an outlet," the mother said. "It gave him something to focus on."
Now 22, Luke Vercollone has turned that focus to the world of professional soccer. The difficult child from Pembroke and Silver Lake Regional High School in May signed with the New England Revolution, and on June 12 saw his first action in a Major League Soccer regular-season game, playing the final five minutes of a 3-1 loss at Dallas against the Burn. The Revs went into this weekend's game against the Columbus Crew in last place in the Eastern Conference, with a 4-8-6 record.
"The team is struggling, but I'm having a great time," Vercollone said. "Professional soccer is everything I thought it would be. It's a big jump from Division 1 college play. I was a little overwhelmed at first. But I'm adapting. The speed of play here makes a difference. No one, it seems, makes mistakes. But I know I can do well here."
Posters of Argentinean soccer legend Diego Maradona had long covered his bedroom walls back on Harvard Street, but Vercollone never seriously considered a career playing the sport. That is, until he captained the Cape Cod Crusaders to the 2003 Premier Development League's national championship.
"Last summer, after the national title, I began to think maybe I could play professionally," he said. "I wasn't sure anyone else shared that view, though."
Some did, including Revolution head coach Steve Nicol, who threw his support behind his team's trading a fifth-round draft pick in the 2005 MLS Super Draft to the Columbus Crew for the rights to the 5-foot-8, 150-pound Vercollone. In April, the Crew had selected the Seton Hall University midfielder with the 42d selection overall.
"Luke brings a real energy to the team," said Nicol. "He's not the biggest kid or the heaviest kid, but he'll run through a wall if he needs to. Players like that are great to have as a teammate. On the field, he doesn't seem to have a problem taking people on."
That trait extends back to Vercollone's days in youth soccer.
Matt Stone of Pembroke, best friends with Vercollone since the second grade at Hobomock Elementary, said that even as a youngster, Vercollone showed high ambition.
"Luke deserves whatever success he gets," said Stone, who played soccer at Stonehill College. "He always had more drive than anyone I've ever seen. No one ever wanted to succeed like he did."
At Silver Lake, where he was an honors student, Vercollone closed his senior soccer season by being named All-State, All-Conference, and the team MVP. He was also a two-time state finalist in wrestling.
Two months after graduation, he followed his older brother, John, to Seton Hall, where he made the Pirates' varsity as a freshman walk-on. As a senior captain in 2003, Vercollone led the team in points (21) and assists (11), while tying for the lead in goals with 5. He guided the Pirates to a 9-6-4 record, and earned All-Big East First Team honors.
"I'm not surprised by anything Luke has done," said former Silver Lake boys' soccer coach Bill Johnson. "Even at a young age, Luke did the extra things that had to be done. He would play as often as possible. He always had a soccer ball at his feet. Seeing him with the Revolution just makes you proud."
Vercollone credits Johnson and youth soccer coaches Joe Ricardo of Marshfield and Nick Palantzas of Brockton with teaching him the game.
Vercollone has moved back home, settling in the basement after another sibling claimed his old bedroom. In a league where only select players make six figures annually, rookie salaries won't cover the rent of a posh apartment.
"That's OK with me," said Vercollone, who recently found himself besieged by autograph seekers during a younger brother's youth soccer game. "I didn't get into this game for the money. I got into this because I really enjoy soccer. I mean, I get up every morning and my job is to train to play a game."
Paula Vercollone said she has noticed a significant change in her son over the past few years.
"He seems so much calmer now," she said. "He's more comfortable with himself. Everything doesn't have to be perfect. Jack and I look at each other and pinch ourselves that Luke is out playing for the Revolution.
"We wonder if this has really happened to our child."