Danny Oquendo was in the spotlight long before his 14-year-old autistic brother, Avonte, disappeared from his New York City school. Growing up, Danny was a football star — “sort of a golden child,” he sheepishly told me — eventually playing for the University of Maryland. But several years after leaving his NFL dreams behind, Danny was thrust back into the public eye again — this time, as one of the people leading the search for his missing brother.
Many New Yorkers remember Avonte’s story. His face was plastered across the city in the fall of 2013 after he ran out of a side door at his special needs school. The family was used to the nonverbal teen bolting on occasion, often calling him "a runner." "But it was never...for more than 10 or 20 minutes," Danny says. "Once we heard that he was gone for a few hours, we knew something was different."
Danny, who is 12 years older than Avonte, put his job on hold and returned to New York from Florida — along with their father, who had separated from Avonte’s mother years before. With help from police, the family launched a massive citywide search and set up camp at Avonte’s school. They slept on benches and in cars so as to not risk missing Avonte if he returned.
But Avonte didn’t come back. When his remains were found on the shoreline of the East River almost three months after his disappearance, Danny decided he needed to stay close to family. He moved back to New York permanently and moved in with his girlfriend, Ileana. They had their first child in 2014, and are expecting another baby this spring. And, Danny enrolled in law school — a longtime dream. He plans on pursuing a career as an advocate for special needs families and kids like Avonte. "Every day I walk into school, I'm reminded of the reason I'm walking into the school," Danny says. "He's who motivates me."Ileana and Danny Oquendo at prom. (Courtesy Danny Oquendo)