Although he is now 20 years old, I first met John at the Ingomar Middle School sports' meeting when he was in eighth grade. Varsity coaches have spring meetings at each of the three North Allegheny middle schools to recruit for Fall sports. John immediately stood out from the crowd. He spouted off the averages of each of the players from the past several seasons, discussed the yardages of each of the courses we played for section matches, and he seemed to know everything about my long golf coaching career at North Allegheny. You see, John is autistic, and his passion is golf. But that is only the beginning of this story.
As a classroom teacher, I was hand-picked by administrators to teach almost every special needs student who was mainstreamed at North Allegheny Intermediate High School, in both my English classes and my Introduction to Theater classes. I loved working with these students, their parents, counselors, and special needs teachers. Helping these students to achieve their best was a total team effort, and the personal and professional rewards I received every single day were very fulfilling. Nothing is as exciting as helping a student to learn social skills, life skills, and subject matter, and to see the student blossom with self-confidence and pride. Every year was exciting, but I only had one year with each of those students. I had four years to be John's golf coach and watch him grow.
Many children who are autistic have specific likes and dislikes, and as I mentioned before, John loves golf. On the first day of tryouts as an incoming freshman, John knew some of the boys from the King's Tournaments, and I observed that he was quite social when discussing golf. In the other social areas, he was not comfortable. I approached his mom that day, introduced myself, and said, "Tell me about John." She told me that John's teachers had always been extremely supportive of him in every facet of his life, and that this tryout was John's first foray into high school life and what she hoped would become a life filled with friendships. (I must interject at this point that I came to know that John's parents and sister are the most supportive family I have ever seen. They walked every round he ever played at North Allegheny and in his tournaments-except for tryouts- no parents allowed on the golf course.)
John made the Varsity team as a freshman after a sudden-victory playoff for that coveted spot. He was the only freshman on the team, and he was thrilled! That first year, and the three years thereafter, John blossomed. His love of yardages and golf equipment and courses played and favorite golf holes were his favorite topics. On the bus trips to away matches, John would review in detail: hole by hole yardages from specific tees; hazards to avoid; the best club selection for avoiding those hazards; risk/reward shots; and slope of the greens. It was like I had an assistant coach who knew the configuration and yardage of every hole the team had ever played or would ever play. John’s contributions to the team and his playing ability, as well as his fun personality, helped him to become a true team member, accepted and loved, and he formed fast friendships which are still flourishing today. With gentle guidance and caring, the four years of boys' golf teams helped John to understand what it meant to be appropriate in many social situations. (This is a problem for autistic people.) Their patience and caring for John echoed mine as his coach. John was held to the same high expectations as the rest of the team; he was treated no differently because of his autism. This was very important to me as a coach and as a teacher; I wanted everyone on the team to recognize that it was the same for everyone. Each golf season, we were a little family of support who nurtured John's growth, never realizing until much later that John was helping all of us to grow into better people because he was a part of our lives.
I wrote earlier that I had the chance to watch John grow for four years on the team, but our relationship is still continuing. I was fortunate to meet Hank Haney, head of the IJGA, at the PGA Merchandise Show in Orlando in 2013. I spoke with Hank about John, and wrote him a letter of recommendation for John to be accepted into the IJGA (International Junior Golf Academy) at Hilton Head. John just finished a fabulous year there, learning more about the game he loves and having many opportunities to play in international tournaments.
I am so fortunate to continue to see John at the club where we both belong, Diamond Run. John and his dad always play the black tees- the tips- and John is a favorite at the club, even playing in the men's championship for several years, despite his young age.
I had the chance to really observe John's growth as a person and as a golfer, as John and I were playing partners in the Myron Cope/Foge Fazio Memorial Tournament for Autism in June. Although John had never played at Montour Heights, I sent him the link to the scorecard and layout of the course. He memorized the course and yardages at first glance (what a special gift) and John had our foursome on every par 5 in just 2 shots. Although we shot 9 under par because of John's extraordinary playing ability, we did not win. John did win a prize and was recognized at the dinner for being the only autistic player to ever play in the event, and for his 0 handicap. Although his mom joined us for dinner, this was the only round I can remember that his mom did not walk the course. I took this as another sign that John is growing up.
I was so proud to be with John all of the years that I was his coach, but that pride was nothing compared to what I felt about this young man as I watched him comport himself in many new situations at Montour Heights. He met many new people and he was completely comfortable, shaking hands and conversing with ease. He took the lead in our foursome, making suggestions and telling us how to hit the shots during this amazing scramble. John quickly made friends with the other two men in our group (friends of mine), and Tom and Mike both told me they thought John was awesome. That day, I played golf with a man, a man I taught and coached and cared for as a boy, who has grown into himself, with the love and support of a fabulous family and wonderful team mates. I have always believed that nurturing support can transform a person, and in this case, seeing the growth and transformation of this young man was overwhelming. I spoke with his mom at length about John’s new independence, and his family is also so proud of him.
What's next for John? I met with the golf coach at CCAC, and he wants John on the team. So John is about to embark on another wonderful adventure. I am sure that this adventure will lead to another, and although I cannot predict what will come next, I do see a bright future for John, and of course, that future includes golf, his true passion.
In my upcoming book and in other blogs, I have mentioned the importance of teachers working with students in extracurricular activities. Although teachers usually only have that one year to see growth, I have been so fortunate to witness John’s continuing evolution for years. Being a part of John's life is one of the best things that ever happened to me as a teacher and a coach. My hat is off to his family and all of his golf friends who surrounded John with love and acceptance, allowing him to be himself and to mature. I am SO proud of this young man! John McCabe, you are awesome!
If you would like to read more about John, this article appeared on the front page of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette on 10/11/12: http://www.post-gazette.com/sports/hsother/2012/10/11/Golf-opens-up-the-world-to-North-Allegheny-teen-with-autism/stories/201210110402
When I sent this blog to John’s parents for their input, I received this heartfelt reply from his mother, which I am using with her permission.
Beautiful! Thanks for making me cry!!
We just take things day by day, but reading about how he has grown in the past 4-5 years alone has made me realize that his growth didn’t “just happen”. There were many special members of “Team JP” who have helped him along the way, and he wouldn’t be where he is today without your help and the help of so many others. I love that John was treated just like the others. When he did something wrong he received the same punishment as the others. This helped teach him life lessons and made him realize that he had to follow the same rules as everyone else, no exceptions because of his disability. Golf is about so much more than hitting a ball and getting low scores. It has taught him basic things like waiting for your turn, keeping quiet while others are hitting, counting ALL of your strokes (even when no one sees!), and being honest with yourself and your playing partners. I love the commercial for the First Tee program where the kid says “I learned so much at the First Tee. I even learned how to play golf.” John has learned so much about life from the game of golf and has made some incredible friends. I don’t know where he would be now without high school golf. That is when he really blossomed and people started to see him for the amazing person he is.
He is an awesome young man and we are so proud of him. I think this is a wonderful article. I’m looking forward to the positive feedback you will receive! Lynda McCabe
Please leave me a comment or suggestion for future articles. Thanks for reading.
Rittman Publishing, LLC