There is a member of the Lake Braddock boys lacrosse team who doesn’t stand out for being a particularly dangerous goal scorer. He doesn’t have the size to be a stalwart on defense, nor does he possess the skills to thrive at midfield. In fact, he doesn’t even play lacrosse at all.
Ben Bair doesn’t plan on ever taking the field in a game, but he’s just as much a part of the team as anyone. Afflicted with cerebral palsy since birth, Bair doesn’t have the motor skills necessary to make him a varsity lacrosse star. What the Lake Braddock sophomore does have, however, is the heart and dedication needed to make him an integral part of the squad in a different capacity.
Introduced to the team last year, Bair quickly gained the acceptance of players and coaches on his way to becoming the most reliable team manager coach Steve Price has ever had.
“The first day he was very, very shy and very restrained,” Price said. “By day five, he was saying hello to the guys. A week later, he was part of the team. He’s a social kid now, and it’s brought him out in a way that I think is remarkable.”
Donning the manager’s jacket given to him by Coach Price, Bair established himself as a mainstay on the sidelines, attending every game and practice to help collect balls, keep players hydrated and assist trainers in patching up injuries. He was given a varsity letter on awards night last year, receiving a standing ovation when his name was called.
More than any award, though, Bair has savored the collective embrace of Lake Braddock’s players, all of whom treat their manager as a friend rather than someone with a handicap.
“They don’t even look at that,” Price said. “They understand that he’s ‘special needs,’ but who cares?”
Bair, who plays soccer and basketball for the Fairfax Police Youth Club Special Olympics team, continued his support for Lake Braddock athletics last fall by serving as a manager for the football team. This spring, he’s back with the lacrosse squad, bringing a couple of newcomers with him this time around. Without any prior consent from Price, Bair invited two friends from special needs classes, Brian Cho and Morgan Ricciardi, to help him out this year. When Bair came to practice with his new helpers in tow, Price didn’t complain — he bought them jackets and welcomed them aboard.
Bair’s commitment to the team doesn’t just extend to local games and practices. He traveled with his father, Art, all the way to Florida to be with the team during its three-game stretch over Spring Break. Initially a bit apprehensive about the trip, Art was pleasantly surprised to find that he only saw his son when he needed money or it was time for bed. Lake Braddock’s players included Bair in everything they did, hanging out with him at the beach and riding the bus with him to games.
Coaches and parents didn’t need to sit their kids down to instruct them how to behave with Bair. Players just welcomed Bair like he was part of the roster.
“I never did that. They did it all on their own,” Price said. “I think I have a very mature group of kids. There are no jerks on this team.”
Rather than look at Bair as some kid bringing them water, Bruin players have grown to respect Bair as more of a teammate, someone dedicated to helping the team win just the same as they are. At the same time, they recognize the way their friendships with Bair are aiding his development as a person.
“I think it’s great. He’s definitely coming out more,” senior captain Charlie Shreves said. “He’s a cool guy. I think it’s awesome that he gets to hang out with us everyday in practice.”
Such a welcoming attitude does not always come naturally to high school kids who are sometimes stigmatized for intolerance of social outliers. Yet the kids on this team aren’t bent on conforming to society’s prejudices.
“In high school, it’s very easy for kids to bully a normal kid with all of his social skills,” Price said. “So if you see a handicapped kid with some special needs, then it sometimes becomes easy for kids to do that. But these kids have just adopted him, and they just feel very comfortable with him.”
Hustling from the water cooler to players panting on the sideline, Bair isn’t concerned with what his teammates are thinking about him. He’s just worried about improving the Bruins’ 2-3 record.
“We have really good players and a good, strong defense,” Bair said. “I’d like us to win the Patriot District championship.”