September 23, 2010

Shawn Reed VSU Sports Information Director 229-333-5903

Friends for Forever: Blazers Serve as Positive Role Models

VALDOSTA -- Cade Greenway was having the typical nine year old birthday party. His mother had taken he and some of his closest friends to Fox’s Pizza for fun and games. However, as the party started, Cade was more than aware that not everyone had arrived as yet. After all, the two 300 pound giants that he was looking for would have stuck out among the crowd of pre-teen children at the party. However, within minutes Cade’s newest friends, Blazer offensive linemen Kyle Fox and Lance Helton, had arrived and Cade was ready for his party to begin.

The story of the friendship among Cade, Kyle and Lance has its beginnings when Cade was two years old. For the first two years of his life, Cade was in the words of his mother, Tammy, “a very typical boy, wanting to play outside, get dirty, run and bounce balls.” However, as Cade got older, his mother started to notice some changes.

“Around 27 months, Cade began to lose some motor and language skills,” she adds. “Within three months, he lost all language, social and motor skills. It was just that quick.”

Cade was diagnosed with regressive autism, a condition where a child, who has developed normally since birth, begins to lose social and language skills between the ages of 18 and 30 months. For active children such as Cade, it also means that they forget how to play, although the desire to never dies.

“Life is never boring when you have a child with autism,” Tammy continues. “The child may have autism, but autism doesn’t define the child. They are always getting into something, or are always thinking of getting into something. As a parent, you are always vigilant, always on your toes, even if they are sleeping. It means we don’t always get to rest, we don’t get to enjoy the simple things in life.”

Cade’s desire to be more active, and his mother’s wish to provide even more for her child, is what eventually led to the formation of the “Friends Forever” program, of which Cade, Kyle and Lance are the founding members. Tammy had noticed that Cade loved to watch others play and could sense his desire to be a part of the action. Often surrounded by women, Tammy had also noticed that when a man was interacting with Cade, he would do activities that he wouldn’t do for a female. While attending a conference at the Dewar College of Education during the spring of 2010, Tammy commented to Maggie Roberts, wife of former VSU Sports Information Director Steve Roberts, about how she was looking for more positive male role models for Cade to interact with. Maggie recommended a natural fit, the Valdosta State football team.

“I wanted a positive role model for Cade,” Tammy continues in her story. “Males could get him to throw a ball and perform other skills. Most of all, when with males, he would act like a boy. He would be rough and tough and do the things boys do. When Maggie recommended the football team, I realized I had never thought about that. I mean I had used VSU students for therapy sessions, but never thought of asking for help from the football team.”

Tammy’s next contact was taken by Blazer defensive line coach Earl Chambers, who passed her on to Robby Brown, who in addition to serving as the offensive coordinator, also directs all of the team’s community service initiatives.

“Tammy called me and I thought it was a great idea,” adds Brown. “I brought it up in a team meeting one day and before I got back to my office after the meeting, Kyle and Lance were there waiting on me to say they wanted meet Cade and to become his friend. They had no hesitation whatsoever.”

Within days, Brown had set up the meeting and Kyle and Lance made the trip to the Greenway house for what would be the first of weekly trips to spend time with their new friend. When the meeting occurred, the group quickly realized just how natural of a pairing that they were.

“I had no idea who we were going to meet, but once we got there and saw Cade, I knew exactly who he was,” says Helton. “I had worked with Ms. Greenway while completing my week practicum for school and had gotten to meet Cade on several occasions.”

The familiarity helped both sides relax and Cade quickly warmed up to his two new friends.

“The first time Cade met Lance and Kyle together was a moment,” Tammy continues. “Cade took a look at Lance and was like ‘I know you.’ Then he looked at Kyle and had this look that said ‘And who are you?’ However, within seconds a large smile spread across his face as it donned on him he had new playmates and he took each of them by the hand to take them outside to play.”

Helton and Fox acknowledge that they had some apprehension as they met Cade for the first time, but his energy and excitement soon made that apprehension pass.

“Cade had to adapt to us, just like we had to adapt to him,” says Helton. “Once that adaption phase passed, and it passed on that first trip, a true relationship began to form. He is drawn to interaction with males and has come to love us. While we have to be stern with him, we’ve developed a love with him as well.”

Fox adds “We have fun going to hang out with Cade. We were with him weekly during the summer and would help him with the different exercises he had to do to work on his motor skills. We would also play some. We haven’t gotten to go as much since camp started, but we want to do more because all of us have so much fun when we are together.”

The bond between the three is evidenced even when the trio is not together. Tammy has learned she cannot tell Cade about visits from Kyle and Lance until just minutes before they arrive, for if she does, he will insist on waiting in the yard, sometimes for more than an hour before they arrive. Unable to speak vocally, Cade communicates his desire to see his new friends using his “Picture Exchange System” (PECS) to let him mother know he wants to see them. He points to their picture and then goes to the door to look for them, often becoming upset if they are not there. Cade has also begun to take after his larger friends, liking the hat that Fox wears so much that he has taken to wearing a hat himself. However, the benefits of the trip aren’t one sided.

“I told Lance and Kyle on the first day that they were going to get more out of this than Cade,” Coach Brown continues. “And they have. This is one of the purest friendships you will ever see. Cade can’t give Lance and Kyle anything. Likewise, he doesn’t care if they miss a block on the field or have a bad practice. Cade doesn’t expect anything from them. They don’t have to be perfect with Cade, nor he with them. They’re just three guys hanging out, playing and having fun.”

The success of the relationship between Cade, Lance and Kyle will extend beyond the trio as well as Brown and Greenway are now working to pair other football players up with additional special needs children in the Valdosta area, an idea that came about when some of these very children and their parents witnessed Kyle and Lance playing with Cade during his birthday party. A second child and family have already been identified and Brown is looking for the right pair of players to become the newest members of the “Friends Forever” program.

“You definitely have to have the right people when interacting with a special needs child,” Fox says. “It’s not for everyone, but we have a lot of guys on our team that would be perfect fits to work with other special needs kids in Valdosta. We can have an impact on these kids, but I tell the rest of the guys that they will have just as much of an impact on us.”

As far as the reaching effects of the impact, Cade’s mother Tammy sums it up best.

“Cade has autism,” she concludes. “His voice may be silent, but his heart speaks loud and clear. That first day Lance and Kyle came over Cade played and laughed so hard. The look on his face and the sound of his laughter made everything worthwhile. I am not sure Kyle and Lance fully understand the part they play, but it truly is priceless and we are blessed to have them in Cade’s life.”