In January 2017, Rocco Mangel, the energetic, charismatic owner of the Rocco’s Tacos chain, announced to the world that he had been diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, a potentially devastating disease of the central nervous system.
It’s a scary, serious diagnosis, one that could result in weakness, mobility issues, paralysis or, in extreme cases, death. But at the time, the then-43-year-old restaurateur was resolute.
“I want people to know it’s not over.”
In the year since then, that resolve has continued.
Not only has he raised almost half a million dollars for MS research with both the West Palm Beach MS Walk and a 30-mile bike ride across Manhattan last fall, but he’s about to open an eighth Rocco’s Tacos in Tampa this weekend. He’s had so much going on that he was too busy to celebrate the 10th anniversary of the inaugural Rocco’s Tacos on West Palm Beach’s Clematis Street location.
“I go 100 miles an hour,” Mangel says now.
He always has, and as far as he’s concerned, he’s always going to try to. It’s not that his illness, which doctors described as mild, hasn’t give him pause, physically and otherwise. “I have good days and I have bad days,” Mangel says now. “I’ve got some bubbling under my skin. I fell in the Walgreens in Lantana, lost (the use of) my left leg for couple of minutes. My arms lock up and I have some significant fatigue.”
Still, he says, he’s doing OK, reporting “that there’s no change in my MRI, which we do every six months. The two words that my doctors use are ‘remarkable’ and ‘perfect.’ It’s changed my life. I’ve been sober two years. I’m in the gym six days a week. I eat right. I’ve stayed true to my word.”
In short, “I wear my MS very well.”
As grateful as Mangel is for his relative good health, he says he’s even more proud of being able to raise awareness not only of MS, but the brave people he has met who are fighting it along with him. He cites a video that he made with daughter Charley, then 3, about his illness that gained national attention.
“I didn’t realize the amount of impact that was gonna have, all over the country, such an outpouring of love,” he says, pausing and clearing his throat. “Everyone in life has something to pursue, and this might be mine. God gave me whatever he gave me. I don’t wish this upon anyone, but out of the worst news, you make the best news. I’ve embraced the disease, to help give others what they don’t have. People have come out of the woodwork to help. We all want to find a cure.”
One of his biggest boosters has been Charley, now nearly 5 and “so gung-ho.”.
He says that recently his dog was diagnosed with cancer, and that his daughter “looks at me, at four and a half years-old, and says ‘Papa, you’re gonna fix Lucy. That’s what you do. You help people.’ I was crying. I made that kind of impact on (her), so that’s what I want to do, to be known as helping people.”
His plan is to continue doing just that. The night before the MS Walk on Feb. 25, Mangel will finally get around to that 10th anniversary celebration, “Rocco style,” as he says, hosting a giant street party with entertainment by national act G. Love and Special Sauce with local favorites Spred The Dub.
And he plans to keep healing and taking care of himself. While he’s aware that “MS is such a snowflake disease – no two cases are the same – it looks like it’s going in the right direction. I don’t feel great all the time, and I should probably rest a bit. But I’m providing for my family, continuing to do what I do. I’m gonna live longer, living the way I do, living a clean, healthy lifestyle.
“There’s a Bob Marley quote, that ‘You never know how strong you are until being strong is the only choice you have.’ That’s the only choice I have. I can’t be weak. If you think you’re strong, you’re gonna beat it. I won’t give up fighting.”