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ISAAC ARJONILLA, ORANGE COUNTY REGISTER
Brothers Brandon and Patrick Anderson, left to right, both autistic, pose with Charlie Griffin, a senior safety on the CdM football team and president of the Best Buddies Club, which aims to involve special needs children with regular children.

CdM football: Brothers find family on the field

ORANGE COUNTY REGISTER

Patrick Anderson is what his shirt tells you he is.

He and older brother Brandon sit at the kitchen table in their Costa Mesa home. A few feet away, relaxing on the couch, is their mother, Lee. Also at the table is youngest brother Christian, completely consumed with an iPod video game.

As he speaks, Patrick occasionally smacks the circular wooden table, as if hammering his point across with his bare hand. Brandon sits and listens, agreeing with the sentiments of his younger brother.

“I never doubt myself,” Patrick says. “My coaches and teammates believe that I'm the best special-needs student to ever play the game.”

Brandon nods.

The lettering on the sleeveless shirt is tattered. It requires a deep stare to make out the word.

“Hard-core.”

Such is Patrick's love for football, love for his older brother and love for what the two have been able to build through the CdM football program: lasting friendships and, above all, confidence.

• •

The Sea Kings just finished a dream season.

At the end of the 2013-14 campaign, CdM's resume reads 16 wins, 0 losses, a Pacific Coast League title, a third consecutive CIF title and a state championship.

But it was Wednesday nights, not Fridays, that mattered most to the Anderson brothers.

“The most fun time is every Wednesday, we go to this restaurant called Wingnuts,” Patrick said. “You can get all sorts of things there. You can watch TV and a bunch of sports.”

Wingnuts, a restaurant in Costa Mesa, became a tradition for the football team on Wednesday nights. In the midst of winning, the boys carved out a time to bond off the football field.

It proved most delightful for Brandon, 19, and Patrick, 17, both of whom live with an autism spectrum disorder.

Each of Lee's three boys is on the autistic spectrum, but at varying degrees of functionality.

According to Lee, Brandon is the most severe, functioning at a second- or third-grade level. His processing is limited. Change is not a good thing, she said.

Patrick is moderate. He has severe behavioral issues which, according to Lee, have fortunately never manifested in school or football.

“The weightlifting and drills helped him develop some good coping skills,” Lee said. “Socially, he has higher skills than his academic ability. But his receptive language is impacted. He can express himself better than he can understand.”

Christian, 12, is fully included at school and higher-functioning, Lee said. He is able to handle the classroom and the workload, but his attention span is short.

Patrick and Brandon's involvement with the football team came from Patrick's eagerness to play sports as he entered high school in 2010. He told his mother he would like to play football.

Lee contacted coaches at the school, one of whom happened to be an autism instructor. She asked if Patrick could be a member of the freshman team.

The freshman coaches were willing to take on Patrick. Then, the conversation took on a different nature.

“Patrick's words were, ‘I don't want to leave big brother behind,'” Lee said. “I knew Brandon had no desire to play football. So I asked the coaches if there is anything that Brandon can do and are they willing to undertake two of my boys.” ”

Brandon, a sophomore during Patrick's freshman year, was assigned to be team manager. He would handle water for the team, a not-insignificant duty.

“I love getting the water for my team,” Brandon said.

Brandon held that position for his final three years at CdM, as Patrick ascended to the junior varsity team as a junior.

After Brandon graduated, Lee sent an email to coach Scott Meyer to ask if Brandon could continue to help out, to be next to Patrick during his senior season.

“You know how much emotion Meyer shows,” Lee said. “He's very calm. But I could hear excitement in his email.”

Brandon watched from the sideline as Patrick played in five varsity games.

“I hear him so much, saying, ‘Go, Patrick, go!'” Patrick said. “He wouldn't stop believing in me. He wouldn't give up on me. I believe in him, and he believes in me.”

Meyer, heading into his fourth season at CdM, said that each brother's personality is manifested through the roles they have taken on.

“Patrick has a little intensity to him,” Meyer said. “He gets fired up and likes lifting weights and enjoys the physical aspect of football. Brandon just wants to help out. He was happy with his role.”

“He's not a starter, but he got in there and I think he had a couple tackles,” Meyer said of Patrick, who played defensive tackle. “He wasn't getting rolled over and taken advantage of. He could go out there and hold his own when we put him in.”

Lee said Patrick sometimes struggled with play calls, but knew that he had one responsibility: Get the quarterback.

And when he did take the field, teammates and team parents treated it as their responsibility to shout their support.

“It was about how much they embraced Patrick and Brandon in that program,” Lee said. “The pats on the back and the cheers, it's crucial because that needs to come from your peers.”

• • •

Patrick is being hard-core again.

He brings out his two CIF rings, the third coming soon. He tells Brandon to get his as well.

Brandon talks about where he hides his two CIF rings in order to keep them safe. Sometimes, even he forgets where he puts them.

Patrick and Lee debate how often he wears the rings. Patrick says once a month. Mom won't let him get away with that. They settle on twice a week.

Lee jokes that when the third rings come, she and the boys' father deserve to have them.

The joke doesn't go over well with Patrick.

“We keep telling them, 100 times, they are not getting our rings,” Patrick said. “Those are me and my brother's rings.”

Lee tells Patrick she's joking. He gets it and moves on.

The football program at CdM has been a joy for the two brothers.

They tab Charlie Griffin, a senior safety on the team and president of the Best Buddies Club, which aims to involve special-needs kids with other kids, as their best friend.

As a parting gift for Patrick after his senior season, Lee purchased his playing helmet from the school. It sits in a glass case on the mantle in the living room, littered with scars and small trident stickers.

But the conversation eases its way back to the rings. Patrick makes a bold proclamation.

“I'm going to wear them three at a time.”

Lee shakes her head, but then issues a smile, one of pride.

“It's through football that he's even able to sit here and have this conversation,” she says.

And that final twinkle in her eyes suggests her final thoughts on the rings.

He can wear as many as he wants. He's earned it.

bwatson@ocregister.com


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