Challenged Student Teaches Dunedin High Life Lessons
DUNEDIN - Perhaps life isn't as complicated as we make it out to be. Take high school. Maybe it's not the SAT or grade-point averages that determine where a student truly ranks in his class. Maybe it's not the football player's touchdowns or the basketball player's game-winning shots that earn the most respect. Maybe, just maybe, it's as simple as how a child treats other children. The students at Dunedin High School seem to feel that way. They elected Eddie Blackshear Jr. "Mr. Dunedin High" in a landslide vote.Eddie, a senior whose mother is in prison on cocaine charges, is designated as mentally handicapped but trainable. He's enrolled in the school's special education department. He learned to read in high school and has progressed enough to enter a career education program. He has scored two baskets for the varsity basketball team. Team manager of the varsity football Falcons for four years, he has participated in one play. He hasn't won any games, but teammates, coaches and teachers say Eddie inspires them. What he has won is hearts. Ask Eddie what is most important to him, and he doesn't hesitate. "Friendship makes me happiest." There are 2,000 students at Dunedin High, and it's a challenge finding one who doesn't know and cherish him. "Eddie will talk to everybody in school, even the outcasts," says Eric Gerhardt, a senior classmate. "He'll ask you how you're doing and absolutely listen. He knows everybody, and there is no bias with him. He's so good to have as a friend." And teammate. "If you're down, he'll bring you back up," says A.J. Lane Jr., a basketball and football player. "He's always cheering you on, telling you what's working and what isn't working in the game. He's like my homeboy, my best friend." He's not your average kid, freshman Victoria Stapleton explains. "He's kind of a celebrity here, you know." That was never more evident than Friday night when Eddie hit the court with 41.2 seconds left in a game against Tarpon Springs High. "Edd-dee! Edd-dee!" came the chant from the stands. Eddie drove to the basket and missed a layup. But before fans could finish groaning, he snagged the rebound and banked in a shot off the glass. The crowd roared as though the score clinched a state championship, and the bleachers shook. Eddie ran down the court, grinning and punching the air with his index fingers. He spotted Dunedin football coach Mark Everett in the bleachers and pointed to him, smiling. The Falcons won, 67-55. "Edd-dee! Edd-dee!" He ran with his teammates to the locker room and into the bearhug of basketball coach Jeff McCann. "That was my dream!" Eddie told him. "To score at home in front of my fans." McCann whispered in his ear: "I'm so proud of you." Eddie had happily managed the basketball team, as well as the football team, until last year. "I got to play on the [basketball] team last year after a kid quit the team," he says. "And I was just as happy bringing out water as I am with playing." That, in a nutshell, is Eddie. "He has overcome such adversity,'' says Sharon McDonald, who had been his case manager and teacher. "And now Eddie can become whatever he wants to be because he has the drive to do anything. I wish I had 100 Eddies." Eddie might not have been such a success story, she notes. He might have gotten tangled up in SATs and GPAs and lost in the shadows of football and basketball stars. But Everett saw something in him. "He's taken Eddie under his wing,'' McDonald says. "He got him involved in sports, and that meant everything." Everett shakes his head no. "Eddie has done more for me." He mentions the homemade get-well card Eddie gave his daughter, Jaime, 12, after she had a bunion scraped off her toe. "Let the Lord bless you through this ordeal," Eddie wrote. Everett bought the required athlete's insurance for Eddie so he could get him in the final regular- season football game last year. Eddie's singular play was as a wide receiver against Dixie Hollins High. Tailback Eric Climes scored a 10-yard touchdown on the play, and the Falcons mobbed Eddie. Everett and his wife, Sandy, saw to it that Eddie had a suit coat for the homecoming dance - and a ride to it. They took him along with their three children to look at Christmas lights and had him over for an early Christmas dinner. Everybody took turns saying what they were most thankful for. When Eddie's turn came, he said, "Thank you for letting me be a part of your family." Remembering that, Everett's eyes well with tears. Everett says Eddie reminds him of Radio, the mentally disabled high school sports team manager whose story inspired the 2003 movie of the same name starring Cuba Gooding Jr. It's a comparison that bothered a much less confident Eddie three years ago when he heard it from others around campus. He told McDonald he would never see that movie. Two summers back, in one of his daily phone calls to Everett, Eddie excitedly announced that he had seen "Radio." " 'Coach, that is me!' " Everett recalls Eddie saying. "It inspired me." "He has come full circle with who he is," McDonald says. Eddie, who says he misses his mother, lives in Clearwater with his father, Eddie Sr. He has a younger brother and older sister. But his home away from home is the school on Pinehurst Road. There, about 7:30 tonight, Eddie will appear for his final home basketball game. It's Senior Night, and he'll be introduced to the crowd with his teammates. He may not get a chance to score a point against the powerful Boca Ciega High Pirates, but of course, that won't matter. He's happiest when he has friends.
Reporter Steve Kornacki can be reached at (813) 731-8170 or firstname.lastname@example.org.