By Michael J. Atwood
Author’s note: On Friday, March 13, 2015, Mikey finished runner-up at the New Balance National High School Championship 5000 meters with an incredible 14:42 time, just losing by a stride. Mikey’s time qualifies him for the USTAF National Junior Championships in June of this year in Eugene, Oregon.This blog was originally published on LinkedIn Pulse.
Imagine you have a beautiful baby boy.
However, early in his infancy, something doesn’t seem right. Lack of eye contact, slow to talk, certain behaviors that you know are somehow not in line with “normal” child development. You try to think positively and decide he is just slow to mature. You tell your pediatrician about it but she tells you to relax. You’re a new parent. Put your mind at ease. Nothing is wrong.
Imagine a few years later: a daycare provider tells you that she has worked with many kids over the years, but something is “not right” with your son. She has observed his hyperactivity, running in circles, repeating words, and stacking of blocks. Then, a teacher doing preschool screening informs you that your instincts were right: there’s something very wrong with your son’s development.
Imagine going to Children’s Hospital and meeting with a neurologist, who informs your son is on the Autism Spectrum. He will need an IEP (Independent Educational Plan) and special classes at school. Speech and occupational therapy will be part of his weekly schedule and medication will be necessary to help him focus and work with other conditions like ADHD.
I don’t have to imagine any of this. It has been my son, William’s reality for the past 11 years. My wife and I are raising a son with Autism.
Photo: William and my wife, Melanie around the time of his diagnosis at age 3.
William has just about made it through elementary school and has seen great progress. He goes to middle school next year. He’s still in smaller classes at school and he has social and behavioral issues. But William has come a long way, further than my wife and I ever thought as possible back in 2006. We want more for him but to imagine he could ever do what Mikey Brannigan has done is simply unfathomable.Now, let’s take it a step further. Let’s say your son starts running as he gets older. At first it is fun, an activity to get him excising and socializing.
Let’s say he gets fast, real fast, and runs 4:07 for the mile and 8:53 for two miles. Let’s say he starts competing and winning at events like the Footlocker Nationals, the Penn Relays, the New Balance Nationals, or the Millrose Games. Let’s say this son – who was diagnosed in Mikey Brannigan’s case at 18 months old – beats, hammers, destroys, drops regular education student-athletes in distance races….all the time.
You don’t have to imagine this. It is indeed the story of 17-year old Mikey Brannigan, a young man who has defied Autism.
Academically, Mikey works hard in school, gets a team of tutors, paraprofessionals, teachers who provide him assistance in the classroom, the support legally required by his IEP. He has earned a 3.3 GPA in high school. This was the same kid whose mother, Edie was told to expect group homes and special schools when he was a baby. However, Mikey is now getting ready to graduate from Northport High School (Long Island) in New York this June.
By this point, you might be saying….”Amazing story!” or “This is a miracle!”
Unfortunately, the State of New York and NCAA Clearinghouse does not share in our joy. Instead, they have decided to restrict this young man’s extraordinary growth and accomplishments on the track and in the classroom. Unfortunately, his early hopes being offered D1 athletic scholarships from the best track and field programs has suddenly started to fade away.
So what happened? Why wouldn’t D1 schools AND the NCAA want this amazing kid compete at that level?The first barrier in this academic steeplechase is the graduation requirements of the State of New York. In Massachusetts, if you pass the MCAS exam and meet your high school graduations requirements, you are all set. In NY, you have to pass what is called the Regents Exams. Here are the requirements:
Essentially, a 65 is required on each of these exams ….
- Comprehensive English
- Mathematics (Any one)
- Global History
- US History
- Science (Any one)
- Language other than English
……as well as 22 other academic credits in the major subjects. They offer opportunities at the community college level if you are at the 55% range and there are tech school options as well. I’m not positive of Mikey’s scores here – the information is quite confidential but I’m assuming he fell a little short on these exam requirements not unlike many other students struggling with such cummalative tests.
Barrier #2 – the NCAA Clearinghouse. If you are not familiar with the requirements to compete a student-athlete in D1, read here:
And here’s a quick overview from Ethan Pendleton of Demand Media:
- To participate in Division I sports, the NCAA mandates that a student must have a certain grade point average, balanced on a sliding scale with a student’s ACT or SAT score (math and verbal only). The better the ACT or SAT score, the lower a student’s GPA can be. For example, if the math and verbal SAT scores add up to 700, then the recruit needs a 2.8 GPA to be eligible. With an ACT score of 57, the student needs a 2.8 GPA.
- The NCAA requires a student to have taken at least 16 core classes that are weighed to decide the student’s GPA. These core classes are selected in such a manner that ensures the student had a well-rounded high school education. Among these classes: four years of English, three years of math (algebra I or higher), two years of natural or physical science and two years of social science.
- Just as students must have a minimum GPA, colleges are graded on how well their students perform. Schools with an APR (Academic Progress Rate) below 925 face possible punishment until their figures improve.
Now, I will admit that I don’t know exactly what Mikey’s transcript deficiency is but as a long-time high school teacher and coach, I can imagine. Most likely, it starts with the weight of his courses. The SPED, College Tech or Prep classes just don’t hold the same weight as your upper-level courses like honors and AP. Then, there is the case of the SAT, which I had my own struggles with as a high school senior, having to retake it three times before Boston College let me in. I’m sure that the SAT’s were not a strong point on his application and I’m positive it was pretty close with his GPA / SAT balance required by the NCAA..
But here is my issue. It’s an issue that I have as the father of a Special Education child, as a long-time high school track coach, and college sports fan, who has followed NCAA D1 athletics for the past 30 years:
An even standard is not being maintained by the NCAA.
For years, colleges have turned a blind eye on the standards required for recruited scholarship athletes grades and academic achievements and accepted them. Specifically, I’m thinking of the revenue producing sports like basketball and football. I would not be able to begin to count the number of kids that we used to call “dumb jocks”, who went onto compete collegiality in D1. Exceptions were made, transcripts were doctored, smarter students took their SAT’s for them.
We all know it.
You, me, the NCAA, and all of the offending schools.
Enter the NCAA Clearinghouse to save the day. Now, every scholarship football player that goes to Alabama, Clemson, Florida State, Georgia, Texas… ALL got 700 on their SATs and ALL earned a 2.8 / B- GPA in high school. AMAZING!
And…..a major lie.
It did not happen. It could not happen. It has never happened.
So that’s what pours the salt on the wound here for me in the case of Mikey Brannigan. We have a kid who could absolutely positively change how kids on the Autism Spectrum are perceived. I mean this would be huge. Forget the Special Olympics or the Paralympics (both worthy events by the way) Forget about the Blade Runner, Lance Armstrong, or any other athlete who has overcome a disease or disability. Here is a real kid who is able to do his school work with the proper support and even though it might take him say five years, perhaps he could indeed graduate from college. Sure, he could attend a D2 or D3 school but he truly believes he earned the opportunity to go D1.
So does his family. So do I. He is qualified to be a NCAA Division 1 student-athlete.
So, who is willing to take a gamble on Autism here? How noble would a D1 college or university look if they accepted a young man who has overcome such major life obstacles? What a powerful message this could send to America. Maybe even the world. This is a huge opportunity. Mikey Brannigan is going to break the 4-minute mile in probably a year or two – the NCAA Clearinghouse will not deter that. He’s already run 4:07 as a junior in high school. Hell, he may come pretty close to Sub-4 outdoors this year.
The possibilities are endless for this young man.
What we need now is the NCAA, a brave track coach, and willing D1 college or university admissions committee to step up and show that Special Needs will not a barrier that will hold back a high-achieving student-athlete like Mikey Brannigan.
Exceptions have been made a thousand times for D1 football and basketball players.
Accept Mikey Brannigan. You won’t be disappointed for the next four years. He might just be your school’s first Olympian.
Coach Atwood is currently at work on his untitled book project on coaching distance runners. He has also published a short story collection, HiStory of Santa Monica: Stories available at http://www.historyofsantamonica.com, and Amazon.com. For ideas on distance training, check out CoachAtwood.com. He is the head indoor track and field coach at Middleborough High School, mentors the Wampanoag Road Runners, and has helped many high school runners realize their success with individual coaching. Have an idea for a blog post? Feel free to send him a note at CoachMikeAtwood@Me.com . He Tweets @AtwoodWrites.
Photo: William with his sisters, Kesley and Megan. He is now 11 years old and enters middle school next year.