Nan Austin

October 23, 2013

Gregori High in Modesto celebrates students’ special bond

Gregori High’s first homecoming game royalty included a wheelchair rider and an autistic teen, best friend of one of the school’s top athletes.

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Generally speaking, football players draw the crowds, smile through the accolades, revel in the “cool” factor in high school. But at Gregori High, triple-sport star Tyler Janitz is used to his best friend taking the limelight.

Michael Ferlmann, always with service dog Nina, is the one everyone knows, Tyler said, and was the natural choice for junior class prince at Gregori’s first homecoming game last Friday. “Michael’s the man on campus. Once people heard Michael was on the ballot, he was a shoo-in,” Tyler said.

It was a very special victory.

Katrina Peralta, who rode with Michael as part of the royal procession at halftime Friday night, said hearing his name called as the winner was very emotional. “It was the most amazing feeling ever. I cried,” she said.

“It was a very teary night,” agreed friend Shyenne Daniel. By including everybody at the school, she said, “We’re more of a family.”

Also close to tears was Michael’s mother, watching her severely autistic son bask in the glory of an unforgettable day. Sally Ferlmann said Janitz, a first-string running back, was able to spend halftime on the field with Michael. “After Michael was crowned, I told Tyler to get a touchdown for Michael. Two minutes later, he did. The announcer said, ‘That’s Tyler Janitz, Michael Ferlmann’s best friend,’” Ferlmann said.

The team gave that touchdown ball to Michael and spent part of practice Wednesday autographing it.

Michael’s ascension to royalty came with a little help from his friends. A Janitz tweet to vote for him got 81 retweets and 200 favorites. Another from Michael’s P.E. partner Carmen Martinez got 150 likes. “He’s a sweetheart, and I think he deserved it the most – because he’s Michael,” Carmen said.

Senior class royalty also included a special winner. Wheelchair rider Juliana Contreras, as one of the top three vote-getters, was a part of the homecoming queen’s court and rode in a pickup donated for the night by Modesto Toyota to accommodate her chair, said Gregori activities director Jessica Maravilla. She and leadership teacher Danielle Root organized the homecoming activities.

“This is all student-driven, and something we have never seen before,” Maravilla said. “I could not have imagined a more perfect homecoming week.”

The inclusion of special-needs students in campus life has become the norm, said campus supervisor Leslie Baskett. “I think the kids are used to it,” she said. “They have so much interaction.”

As an example, she pointed to the campus Challenge Day. Disabled athletes from all the Modesto high schools came to compete during the school day. Gregori cheerleaders lined up to give the Jaguar spirit boost. Students packed the gym bleachers. Disabled athletes earned varsity letters. Championship banners from the day hang in the gym.

Then there was the basketball coaches’ one-minute hoop challenge. Coach Michael Vander Molen faked an injury and had Michael stand in for him, Sally Ferlmann said. “The whole student body was chanting, ‘Michael. Michael.’ It brought tears to my eyes,” she said. “From the top down, everyone’s been so welcoming. It’s just been an amazing thing to watch develop.”

Vander Molen was the P.E. teacher who introduced Tyler and Michael on their first day at Gregori, Tyler said. “We just clicked,” he said. “I gained a best friend.”

Michael said the same. “Friend, best friend,” he said, looking at Tyler.

Michael’s primary teacher, Desirree Abshire, said Tyler has helped her students become part of the campus fabric. “We, as educators, work to create a culture of inclusion, but students reaching out to each other can’t be scripted or staged. Michael has a best friend who understands him, and that bond is sincere,” Abshire said. “We are blessed to have a campus where this type of friendship and caring is the norm. Everyone needs a friend.”

Senior Sahar Fakhouri said getting to know Michael has been “eye opening” because he’s always so active despite the challenges. “It kind of makes me feel like I need to do more because he’s doing so much,” she said.

After returning Michael’s signature fist bump at lunch Wednesday, junior Charles Graham said he doesn’t see what all the fuss is about. “He’s just one of us,” he said. “Once a Jaguar, always a Jaguar.”

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