Floral Park-Bellerose Elementary School fourth-grade teacher Tommy Sheehan has a been a fan of CBS’ Survivor ever since the first season and now, he is going from the classroom to the infamous island itself as a contestant for the reality show’s 39th season Survivor: Island of the Idols.
“I’ve been a fan of Survivor since I was about 7 years old, and I remember my mom and dad telling me that it was the one night that I could stay up until 9 p.m., so that was half the reason why I loved watching it because I got to stay up a little later,” said Sheehan, who is a Bayville native. “Ever since I was 7 years old, I’ve always said that I want to play that show and I want to win. So last year, my mom was at the dinner table and was like, ‘Tommy, why don’t you apply for Survivor? You’d be so good at it.’”
Following his mother’s advice, Sheehan put in his application and didn’t think anything of it. However, producers called him that day and flew him out to the final auditions where he got the show on his first try.
“Going into the game, I always wanted to downplay everything,” explained Sheehan. “I didn’t want to be the captain of the team because usually, they end up going home early. I didn’t want to be the best challenge player because I didn’t want to be a beast in the challenges and then, I’m a threat. I just wanted to make sure that I can have one-on-one conversations with everyone. I wanted to build real connections with everybody because I feel like it’s harder to vote out somebody you truly do like and bond with. I wanted to get in-depth with people about who they are and they’re struggles. I just wanted to find that bond with each and every one of them.”
According to Sheehan, the hardest part of surviving on the island was the rain and the cold temperatures at night.
“I didn’t think the rain was going to be so bad,” remembered Sheehan. “I think it was our first day out there. We were so cold. When you think Fiji, you think 100 degrees, but at night, it drops down to 50 degrees and when it’s pouring rain, you just watch the moon and the stars cross the sky, and it feels like it’s an eternity. Also missing my family [was hard]. It’s only 39 days, but after one day on that island, I was like ‘Damn. I miss my family so much.’ You don’t know [on the show] who’s lying to you and who’s not. It really is hard because none of these people love me; they all want me out eventually. You miss that comfort of someone having your back.”
Survivor: The Island of the Idols also features two legendary winners, Boston Rob Mariano and Sandra Diaz-Twine, who return to serve as mentors to the group of 18 players. Combined, Mariano and Diaz-Twine have played more than 200 days in the game and will share their knowledge with the new castaways.
“I grew up watching them in fourth grade and now, I teach fourth grade,” laughed Sheehan. “It’s so funny where I always loved Sandra because that’s my mom’s name and she also has a son named Tommy. It was like that instant, ‘She’s my mom and I’m her son,’ so it was really cool. As a fan, too, to think that I can be one of those [idols] if I just play the game right. I can be a legend. One person will be a winner, so it fueled the fire in me. I want to be talked about for years just like Boston Rob and Sandra are.”
Interestingly enough, Sheehan didn’t like school when he was growing up because he found it boring and was bullied. However, it was his fourth-grade teacher Miss Bennett who found his true potential inside of him.
“Miss Bennett made me fall in love with school and that was the year I found my best friend, which I still have today,” said Sheehan. “I finally started getting friends and I found confidence. I was always a struggling reader, I was really bad at math and my fourth grade teacher just spent all that extra time with me. She found the good in me when all my other teachers gave up on me. Without Miss Bennett, to be honest, I don’t know if I would have went to college. She drives me to be that change in people’s lives and make learning fun and do crazy things. I stand on desks, I do cartwheels, I throw silly string at kids and I pop off confetti cannons. Every day, when I get in my car, if I’m not exhausted I didn’t do my job. I want to make sure that I reach all 21 kids, not just the kids with the best grades, but everyone who needs the help.”
It’s also pretty safe to say that the faculty and the students at Floral Park-Bellerose Elementary School are excited to see Sheehan competing on their television screens.
“My school is going insane,” laughed Sheehan. “They’re all running up asking me if I won and I’m like ‘I can’t tell you. You have to watch the show.’ They’re all excited. I’ve always talked about Survivor. Even when I’m dismissing all of my students, the parents are running up to me saying, ‘I saw you in the New York Times.’ It’s a great way to bring Floral Park together. This community already is amazing, but I feel that Survivor is going to be an extra turning point for everyone to get together and root for me and show the world what an amazing community Floral Park is. So I’m very lucky on how supportive and excited everybody is about it.”
Sheehan’s fiancé and mom, who are some of the biggest Survivor fans, even do fantasy drafts every single year.
“Now, my family is arguing over who can pick me in the draft,” said Sheehan. “My family is such super fans of the show, so they’re excited and they know how bad I wanted it. They helped me prepare for the show. They were just as invested as me and they’re also my driving force out there. I just hope I don’t let them down.”
Overall, Sheehan said that he just wants to show his students that they can follow their dreams if they work hard enough to achieve them.
“I’m very happy with CBS and the show is amazing,” said Sheehan. “I’m just happy that they gave me an opportunity to do something that I love so much.”
Catch Survivor: Island of the Idols on CBS at 8 p.m. starting Wednesday, Sept. 25.