As I sit here listening to my husband help prepare Colton, our son with Asperger’s Syndrome, for his first Special Olympics appearance I’m already starting to tear up. We may not live in the happiest place on earth but Colton Royce Graves is one of the happiest people on the planet. That wasn’t always the case.
Not too many years ago Colton was a sad, angry, friendless kid trying to survive cruel middle-schoolers. He was tormented for a medical condition he can’t control. He was desperate for a friend and a place to fit in. The other kids knew that and often pretended to be his friend for the sole purpose of humiliating him. They would pretend to be his friend only so they could humiliate him by proclaiming to the entire cafeteria that they would never be the friend of the “loser” named Colton.
By his freshman year of high school we had to make changes. I felt that a friend or two would change things for Colton. I also knew kids relate by common interest. My thought was that if Colton got involved in a sport or organization that he might find a friend. I inquired about Colton helping out with sports. I was thinking he’d be the guy that puts away all the basketballs at the end of the game.
Imagine my surprise when I’m told Colton needs to be with the football team. My initial thought was, “Holy crap! Football players? They will punt him like the ball.” But I was assured that the coach would have none of that bullying nonsense. From what I was hearing Coach Paul Columbia was fair, honest, sincere, caring and the most notable citizen in the entire county. Coach Columbia was a former NFL player with a passion and intelligence for winning but with a heart designed for kids. I mockingly said, “So, he’s Jesus?” To my utter shock the reply, in all seriousness was, “Pretty close.” I wasn’t sure whether I should be scared or scoff.
Good thing I didn’t scoff because Paul Columbia was far more than I could have ever expected. I didn’t formally meet the man until Colton had graduated but I didn’t need to. The fingerprints of Paul Columbia were all over my kid. Suddenly, the boy that had no friends received party invitations. The kid once mocked was sought out for his humor and wit. The boy who was once tossed away became valuable to the team; not because of any great play but because Coach said ALL people are to be valued and respected. And Coach not only said it, he was a living example for those boys.
Coach Paul Columbia invested four years into my son and harvested a lifetime of respect, joy and confidence. Colton never would have had the courage to even remotely consider a competition of any sort, let alone one as huge as Special Olympics. But tonight, the Pre-Coach Columbia Colton exists only in the haunted memories of my traumatized mind. There is no sign in the man that Paul Columbia made from the beat down boy that came before him.
Paul Columbia you will always be a gold medalist in love, acceptance and genuine human compassion. Thank you for that.