Clark: Loyola, Mount Carmel shine light on special needs
By Mike Clark firstname.lastname@example.org October 3, 2013 10:06PM
Pat Nicholson (left) and brother Matt Nicholson (right) of Loyola watch the coin toss. | Patrick Gleason ~ For Sun-Times Media
Sometimes the stories you cover take on a life of their own and head off in a direction no one saw coming.
Take the column I wrote after last year’s football game between Mount Carmel and Loyola. That may have been the game of the year — Loyola won 30-27 in overtime, the only loss all season for the eventual Class 8A champion Caravan.
But the story was about the coin toss before the game, which featured players from both teams coming out with siblings with special needs. It was the brainchild of one of the game’s officials, Chuck McNellis, who knew of Loyola’s outreach to Misericordia, a facility for kids with special needs on Chicago’s Far North Side.
One of the brother duos was Loyola senior receiver Matt Nicholson and his brother, Pat. That night was a special one for Pat, according to his mom, Carrie. But it was far from the end of the story.
Afterward, Carrie Nicholson said the Rev. Patrick McGrath, Loyola’s president, jokingly told her he was thinking of hiring Pat to do some public relations work for the school because of all the attention generated by the coin toss.
It was an offhand remark, but one that stuck in Carrie Nicholson’s head.
“I was brainstorming, (thinking), ‘Why couldn’t he work there?’ ” she said. “This could be a really good win-win situation.”
Because the day was coming when Pat, who was in school at Loyola, would have to leave its bustling hallways for a transitional program that might not be as vibrant.
So Carrie Nicholson arranged to meet with McGrath to pitch the idea of Pat working for the school for real.
“I had my whole spiel ready to go,” she said. “I almost canceled two times because I was so nervous. My stomach was upside down.”
But finally the day came and Carrie and Larry Nicholson, her husband, went to meet with McGrath.
The response was simple and direct. “It took him less than five seconds to say, ‘Let’s do it,’ ” Carrie Nicholson said.
So now Pat goes to work two days a week at Loyola, helping McGrath’s special assistant, Dennis Stonequist, with a variety of tasks.
It’s pretty much a dream come true for Pat and for his parents, too.
“Patrick, who is very social, wants to be in the community, wants to be in everyday life,” Carrie Nicholson said. “It’s huge. (Otherwise), he was going from a high school with 2,000 kids to a transitional program with 20 kids.”
Instead, Pat has all the perks of employment: his own desk, computer, email address.
Carrie Nicholson can’t say enough about Loyola’s loyalty to her son and its commitment to special needs kids symbolized by its partnership with Misericordia.
But the Ramblers aren’t the only ones stepping up here. Mount Carmel embraced the idea as well, and the coin-toss tradition will continue Saturday when the teams meet in Wilmette. While Loyola still was finalizing its list of participants this week, Mount Carmel will send out T.J. LaCount, the 6-year-old nephew of athletic director Dan LaCount.
T.J. was born with a chromosomal disorder that prevents him from being to speak, swallow or walk, though he attends special-education classes five days a week.
“We’re very, very honored,” Tom LaCount, T.J.’s dad, said of the invitation. “It was a little bit emotional at first.”
The lesson of perspective is one a lot of people will be drawing from this ceremony on Saturday.
“It helps the high school kids realize how fortunate they are to be doing what they’re doing,” Tom LaCount said.
He noted that some of his friends have expressed their sympathy at the situation T.J. finds himself in. But, he said there’s no need for pity.
“T.J. has taught me more about life than anybody,” Tom LaCount said. “So we’re the lucky ones.”
On Saturday, we’ll all get reminded of why that’s so.