Jan. 27, 2014
By JACK BOGACZYK
HUNTINGTON, W.Va. - Tom Herrion has a cause.
It's about much, much more than winning or losing a basketball game.
The Marshall coach and his close personal and professional friend, Towson Coach Pat Skerry, are taking their first organized steps in the fight against autism.
It's a condition that afflicts their sons, Robert Herrion and Owen Skerry.
The two coaches are taking the cause to a powerful lobby - the men's college basketball coaching community - in hopes of raising awareness about the condition.
Autism is the result of a neurological disorder and impacts the development of the brain in the areas of social interaction and communication skills. The condition, according to Autism Speaks Inc., is caused by a combination of genetic and environmental influences and can occur with no family history.
The result of a neurological disorder that affects the functioning of the brain, autism impacts the normal development of the brain in the areas of social interaction and communication skills. Children and adults with
The result of a neurological disorder that affects the functioning of the brain, autism impacts the normal development of the brain in the areas of social interaction and communication skills. The result of a neurological disorder that affects the functioning of the brain, autism impacts the normal development of the brain in the areas of social interaction and communication skills."We said that right now, we just wanted to educate, to help. We wanted to use the basketball landscape nationally to help educate people to this growing epidemic," Herrion said Monday. "Obviously, it's the fastest-growing developmental disability in our society, affecting young people, especially young boys."
Statistics show that autism affects one in 88 children and one in 54 boys. At the college basketball telecasts this Saturday, those with the condition will get a large dose of support from the men on the sidelines.
Herrion and Skerry purchased 200 of the light blue, puzzle-piece lapel pins - promoting autism awareness - from Autism Speaks. They contacted coaches, who networked with other coaches, targeting primarily the 40-plus college basketball telecast games scheduled Saturday.
The coaches in those TV games - including the Marshall-FAU noon tipoff at the Henderson Center -- will wear the Autism Speaks pins. Some national media members - including Dick Vitale, Seth Davis and Jay Bilas and others on the College GameDay crew - will do likewise.
Those backing Herrion and Skerry are a "who's who" of the sport - Mike Krzyzewski, Rick Pitino, Jim Boeheim, John Calipari, Tom Izzo, Roy Williams, Bob Huggins, Billy Donovan, Bill Self, Bo Ryan, Tubby Smith, Thad Matta, Jay Wright and Lon Kruger, to drop just a handful of names.
The National Association of Basketball Coaches also is on board. And from New York, Autism Speaks has asked how it can further support and aid the Saturday efforts of Herrion and Skerry.
"Pat and I talked about it this spring and summer," Herrion said. "We wanted to try to use basketball as a platform to raise awareness. We're not at the point, this year, to feel as though we could be in a fundraising mode yet. We see that as something on the horizon as we move forward."
Autism Speaks reports that less than 1 percent of the National Institutes of Health funding goes to autism research.
"On that same note," Herrion said, "there's a lack of support from a health insurance standpoint. Many states don't recognize autism (as a disability), and therefore don't cover the numerous needs, treatments, therapies, resources.
"On an average that roughly would cost, out-of-pocket, $60,000 for a year to fully support a child been diagnosed with some form of autism."
Herrion and Skerry are native New Englanders who met while working summer camps in the region. When Herrion was head coach at College of Charleston, Skerry was an assistant coach there for two seasons. Then, as Herrion left an assistant's post at Pitt to become head coach at Marshall, he aided Skerry in succeeding Herrion in the vacancy on Coach Jamie Dixon's staff.
Their friendship pre-dates the autistic conditions of their sons.
"I hired Pat and we worked together at Charleston, and because of that we became really close," Herrion said. "We're best friends now, and the common thread is there not only our profession, but of having a child with special needs in the autism world.
"We're trying to get our hands around the overwhelming, humbling amount of support we've gotten in this initial endeavor together. It's been unbelievable. From our coaches to the media, to the amount of emails we're getting from the publicity out there.
"They're from people thanking us for helping, random folks that are dealing with this on a day-in, day-out basis. It's been tremendous. The NABC has been great, too. We've got to put our heads together on how to attack it moving forward, what might be the best route. We just don't have answer for that today.
"Every single coach we asked, every one of them is on board. We have no financial backing. We paid $5 for each pin, 200 of them, but the money out of our pockets isn't a big deal. Really, we'd like to get to the point where we could provide a pin to every coach in the country, but right now, we felt our best vehicle to get it off the ground was to target it to the national exposure. We wanted to start somewhere."
Robert is the only child of Herrion and his wife, Leslie. Born in Charleston, S.C., Robert turned 8 last month, and he's in the second grade at Village of Barboursville Elementary School.
"We recognized somewhat early on in Robert's infancy that he was what doctors would say was `delayed' in his speech," Herrion said. "He was late forming words, and obviously we were concerned.
"You go through the normal progression ... and this is when you child is supposed to start using words and it wasn't happening. When we moved to Pittsburgh, we said we didn't think it was really delayed and we went for a diagnostic, to an autism center there, and they termed him in the autism spectrum."
Leslie Herrion got her son into autism treatment programs early in the boy's life. The Herd coach said Robert's progression is something the family hangs onto every day.
"Many of his conditions or struggles, or issues, are with his peer interaction," the Herd coach said. "When he's in a group of other children, you will not see him having a lot of dialogue with others ... peer interactions.
"You get Robert around us, get him at home and he'll talk, he's smart, but he struggles with his peers socially. He has some characteristics, where sometimes he'll make some humming noises. He has what we call `active hands,' where he's flapping them when he gets excited.
"Fortunately for us, in the grand scheme of things, Robert is probably 80-90 percent mainstreamed from an educational standpoint. He'll be in regular class, but he'll step out for extra resources, speech therapy, other good resources that they provide for him ... It was important for us to find a school - Village of Barboursville. We did a lot of research on which schools were equipped for a kid like Robert, and this school came highly recommended and they've been just terrific.
"Leslie and I have been very pleased with what's happened there, and his progress. He's made really good strides. His aptitude for math, spelling, those issues, he's on par with other students and in some regards, ahead of them.
"He just has some social inhibitions, or deficiencies, that concern us. Short term ... long term, you don't know. He's made great strides, but what does the future hold? It's the great unknown."
On Saturday, Herrion’s Herd team also will wear a special Nike-provided shooting shirt in pregame that will raise autism awareness. The front of the black jerseys are lettered: “We Are … Listening” with the block M logo. The back will be a multicolored puzzle-piece symbol of autism and includes the words: “Autism speaks … It’s Time to Listen”.
Herrion and Skerry and the NABC want to make Autism Awareness Day an annual event.
"If you have a child with special needs of any sort," Herrion said, "that's a hard pill to swallow."
Herrion and Skerry are pinning their hopes on a special Saturday being the start of something much bigger.