It's not completely unique for a program to honor a fellow student with a developmental disability by making him an honorary member of the team, or even an honorary captain. However, a team doing that for a fellow student who isn't even a part of their school in unique indeed.
Yet that's precisely what has happened at Philadelphia (Pa.) Archbishop Wood High, where a long-running, close friendship between one of the nation's top-ranked tight end prospect and a special friend has led to an extra captain at the midfield coin toss before every game and, on Saturday, a celebratory ice bath for a team member who wasn't on the coaching staff.
As chronicled by both the Philadelphia Daily News' Ted Silary and ESPN.com, Archbishop Wood tight end Colin Thompson -- the number six-ranked tight end in America, according to Rivals.com -- first became friends with John Shulby, who has Down Syndrome, when both were in middle school together in Doylestown, Pa. When Thompson was assigned to be a "buddy" for Shulby at a track meet, a role designed to ensure that Shulby made it to each of his events on time, Thompson turned it into much more, sparking a friendship that has endured throughout Thompson's high school career.
While it might appear that the relationship is a simple product of a Pennsylvania program called Athletes Helping Athletes, Thompson insists the bond between the two is much more; a true, long-standing friendship that has flourished from its fortuitous origins.
"John is one of my best friends," Thompson told ESPN.com. "He is an inspiration to myself and our football team to be better people. He is a great kid, and he will do great things in life. I love him. He's a big part of my family and our football family."
Now, Shulby is a part of a much larger family. Archbishop Wood has helped Shulby fight against common use of the "r-word" with the "Spread the Word" campaign, and the teenager has been a mainstay at every Wood football event for three entire seasons.
With Thompson bound for Florida, its unknown how the tight end and Shulby will be able to see each other in 2012 and beyond. But for now, the duo is making the most of their remaining time together in the same place, with both hoping that another celebratory ice bath could be in the cards come the first week of December after a playoff game against either Pottsgrove (Pa.) High or Phoenixville (Pa.) High.
"I just told [Wood football coach Steve Devlin] that I'd like for John to be part of our team, and to come down on our sidelines for games and he said right away, 'No problem. We'll make that happen,' " Thompson told the Inquirer. "It's been a great thing. I'm not looking forward to the end of it, but hopefully it'll end on a good note."