It was Billy Rarick’s dream-come-true Friday night when he led the Norwalk Trucker basketball team onto the court to warm up.
It was a unprecedented honor for two reasons — Rarick is only a sophomore and he’s the team manager. The final home game of the season is usually reserved to honor the seniors, but the five young men who lead the Truckers asked their coach to allow Rarick to dress in uniform, lead the team onto the court to warm up and possibly play in their last home game.
Obviously the relationship between Rarick and the seniors, along with the rest of the team, is very special.
Coach Steve Gray remembered when Rarick, who is autistic, first asked to be manager for the basketball team when he was a freshman last year.
“He came to us a shy introvert who didn’t even want to talk to me,” Gray said. “Now he gives me advice and suggestions. He makes my job easier and he allows the players to do their jobs a lot better.”
Gray said Clay Duncan and Jacob Willis, last year’s seniors, started to bring Rarick out of his shell. Everyone on the team could tell how much Rarick loved basketball and how dedicated he was to doing a good job, Gray said, so they started including him in after-practice activities.
“It has been more than just during basketball practice and games,” Gray said. Duncan and Willis took Rarick to a Cleveland Cavaliers game last year.
The bonding between the athletes and the manager continued this year, Gray said. This year’s seniors include him when they go out to eat occasionally.
“We have a quality group and Billy is a good manager,” he said. “It has been good for everybody associated with the program. The kids care about him.”
The way the school’s star athletes have developed a friendship with a student who faces the challenges of a condition like autism just shows the character and maturity of his athletes, Gray said. “It has been a win-win situation for everyone.”
This year’s seniors, who willingly gave up part of the limelight of their last home game for a younger student who normally doesn’t even get on the court, said they just wanted Rarick to know how important he is to the team.
“Billy loves basketball, but he couldn’t make the team so he’s the manager,” Kyle Smith said. “He’s been there for every practice and every game and everything else. This will be special for him.”
“This is not only for Billy,” Kyle Kurtz said. “It means a lot to other people — his mom, his dad and the entire student body. He’s earned it. Personally, I think it is a great honor to have him look up to us the way he does. I look at him like my little brother.”
“We’ve gotten pretty close to Billy over the last two seasons,” Spencer Krebs said. “He’s a part of our little family now.”
“When he first got here, he was very quiet,” Nathan Heckelman said. “He’s really opened up and now he talks to a lot of people. He’s grown up in so many aspects.”
Tyler Smith summed up the reasons the seniors asked for Rarick to lead them onto the court. “We wanted Billy to dress because it means a lot to him and to us as well. Watching what he goes through every day shows us not to take anything for granted,” he said.
Rarick was very excited about the honor the seniors gave him and said it was a night he’d never forget. He said he especially looks up to this year’s five seniors.
“I consider them really good role models,” he said. “They have made me feel like I’m actually part of the team.”
While he would love to be able to be part of the team on the court, Rarick said he knew his autism makes that impossible so he just wants to be part of the effort as a manager. He never imagined that the seniors would include him with this special honor.
Practicing with the team all week was difficult at times for the sophomore. Gray said he developed a special play for both offense and defense in the hopes he would be able to give the sophomore some playing time. That meant learning something new for both the starters and Rarick.
“It is kind of confusing with all the drills,” Rarick said. But that didn’t stop his enthusiasm for finally getting the chance to don a Trucker uniform and spend some time on the court with his friends.
Game time or not, Rarick will never forget this Friday night.