At their homecoming game Oct. 7, Basalt whooped Aspen. When the whistle blew for halftime, the Longhorns led the Skiers 41 to 0. The pressure was off. It was now time for glamour: The announcement of this year’s homecoming king and queen.
This story is about one candidate for king: Oliver Harrington, number 22 on the football team. That night, all 84 pounds of him sat in his yellow wheelchair, facing the crowd.
A battery-powered motorcade lined the inside lanes of Basalt High School’s track. All seven golf carts were waiting to make the 100 yard-drive to face an excited crowd. One battery in the midst wasn't working, however; Oliver Harrington’s 290-pound wheelchair was out of juice, so his father, Matt, pushed.
Normally, Oliver whips around by himself. The parade earlier in the day is what likely whittled down the battery. Matt lifted Oliver out of the wheelchair and loaded him into the golf cart, next to the young lady at the wheel, Cally. She was a nominee for queen and explained how homecoming royalty is decided. "We first take a vote from the whole school," she said. "And all the couples are nominated, four girls, four guys. Once the homecoming court is decided, the whole school gets to vote again, out of those four couples."
The golf carts slowly pulled up in front of the aluminum bleachers. The smiles were wide. There was a lot of cheering and pictures. Then came the announcement: "Oliver, Carson, congratulations."
There was plenty of excitement, but not much surprise. Oliver’s older brother, Max, confirmed this when asked how it felt to be related to homecoming royalty.
"Extremely well, I’m very proud of him for sure," he said.
Oliver has been friends with many of the players on team since kindergarten. At every home game, he retrieves the tee after kickoff. He’s not only involved in sports. Last year, he was in a production of “All Shook Up,” and tomorrow, he’ll dance with the homecoming queen.
Throughout all of this involvement, Matt has been by his side, but not in a coddling way. Matt remembers a day he got a call from the school nurse who had Oliver in her office.
"She said, 'well he got smacked in the face with a volleyball.' And I said, 'yeah, what happened?' And she said, 'well he got smacked in the face with a volleyball!' Well, every kid has to get smacked in the face with a volleyball; put him back in the gym, you know? It’s important to me he lives a typical life as a typical child."
Oliver’s life isn’t typical, of course. He was born with a rare syndrome called craniosynostosis. Most babies are born with soft spots in their skull. Oliver was not. The soft spots allow the skull to expand as the brain grows. Oliver’s skullcap was removed so his brain could grow. At age 18, he has undergone somewhere between 20 and 30 surgeries. Matt is his primary caregiver.
"Even at night when we’re sleeping, he could blink his eyes and I’m up. It’s kind of like the service dogs...you know what I’m saying? They just know. And I know," said Matt.
The next week, I spent the morning with Oliver at school. We first went to Mr. Bravo’s Spanish class. The room had everything you’d expect: Common verbs laminated and tacked up on the walls and posters from Latin American countries.
When it’s time to go in front of the class and perform a skit, a few classmates urge him forward.
"Oliver, who do you want to be? La maestra or el estudiante?" asked Bravo.
"Estudiante," Oliver responded.
Oliver, his special education teacher, Dan LeVan, and I ducked out of the class a few minutes early and go to a quiet room. LeVan and Oliver went over the material from the Spanish class. The two have a nice rapport. When the other students come in for homeroom, Oliver clearly had something similar with them. Miles Levy, the starting quarterback on the football team, has been friends with Oliver since kindergarten.
"We always knew Oliver was different," Miles said. "But that didn’t stop us from being friendly and being friends with him."
When school is over, Matt comes back and he and Oliver get ready for football practice. I had a few questions first. I asked Matt if someone like Oliver would have been elected homecoming king at his high school.
"In New Jersey?" Matt asked. "No."
"You got a problem with that?" said Oliver.
"You got a problem with that?" echoed Matt, jokingly. "It’s a Jersey thing."
I asked Matt if his life was hard.
"Yeah, it is," he said. "But I wouldn’t trade it for anything."