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Middletown senior with special needs starts, sinks a basket, 'a Middie for life'

Feb. 14—MIDDLETOWN — The performance of most basketball players is judged by the results of their box score.

On Tuesday night, senior Luke Atkinson, who has served as Middletown High School boys basketball team manager for four years, was honored during the last home game of the season.

It was arranged between Middletown and Mason coaches to allow Atkinson, who has Down syndrome, to start the game, then score the first basket. After that, a Mason player was allowed to score without being guarded so the game started fairly.

It took Atkinson five shots at close range, but with 7:34 left in the first quarter, he made a basket and the large crowd at Wade E. Miller Gym gave him a standing ovation as he walked off the court.

Late in the fourth quarter, with the Middies leading 63-53, Coach Bill Edwards Jr. put Atkinson back into the game. He took five more shots — from 3-point range — but all missed. One rimmed out as players and fans groaned in disappointment.

He finished the game one for 10 from the field for two points.

But don't let those unimpressive statistics define what Atkinson, the team, school and community accomplished by fulfilling one of his lifetime goals: playing for the Middies.

Like the other senior players and cheerleaders, Atkinson, 19, was introduced before the game. He was accompanied by his parents, Mark and Jennifer, and brother, Jake, 23. After the game, Edwards Jr. presented all seniors with framed Middies jerseys, including Atkinson's No. 10 jersey.

Atkinson flashed a smile and told the crowd and his teammates that he "had fun" with them during the game.

Edwards Jr. said Atkinson will be a "Middie for life."

Earlier, Edwards Jr. said the coaching staff and players learned more from Atkinson than they taught him during the season.

"Luke always has a smile on his face," the first-year head coach said after the game. "While we focus on the big things, he showed us to focus on the small things. It was a special night for our guys."

While Atkinson didn't appear to be nervous during pre-game warmups or for his 46 seconds on the court, the same couldn't be said for his parents, Mark and Jennifer, who sat near the court with numerous family members, friends and church members.

They both admitted to being anxious before the game.

"Just like the other parents," his mother said.

She was asked about being a mother of a child with special needs.

"I feel blessed to be his mom," she said. "I would have missed out on a lot. You learn to appreciate the little things. He approaches everything with a positive attitude. He never gives up. He's willing to try again."

After he graduates this spring, Atkinson hopes to enroll in Project LIFE, a comprehensive, multi-year transition program at Butler Tech in which students develop, practice, and strengthen skills that are high predictors of increased adult independence and integrated employment in the community.

When the Middletown couple learned their second son was born with Down syndrome, they didn't know what the future held, his father said. But he "thrived" in the Middletown district, according to his father.

Middletown High School Athletic Director JD Foust said Atkinson served as soccer and boys basketball team manager. He never complained, regardless of the weather conditions, Foust said.

"It didn't matter if it was 40 degrees and raining or 100 degrees in the gym, he always had a smile on his face," Foust said.

So the school wanted to honor him, the same way it did all seniors on the basketball team and cheerleading squad.

"This is so much more than just a game," the athletic director said about recognizing Atkinson. "As a program, you want to repay Luke back and show him some appreciation."