PROFILE: The Picture of Joy: Chandler Herrero’s journey
By BAKER ELLIS | Staff Writer
On May 14 of 2016, the Oak Mountain High School boys’ soccer program won its second consecutive 7A state title after beating McGill-Toolen by a 2-1 final. Oak Mountain finished that season with a 28-0-2 record, and won a national fan vote put on by USA Today that sought to identify the top prep team in the nation, regardless of sport or gender. Oak Mountain’s soccer program was, definitively, one of the best athletic teams across the country during the 2015-16 school year, and will likely compete for state titles for years to come.
While what the Eagles’ have accomplished on the pitch is laudable and worth discussion, this isn’t a story about soccer. This isn’t a story about an historic, undefeated season or even about athletics in a broad sense. This is instead a story about how a school system, a coach and a group of teenaged boys have impacted and changed the life of a peer for the better. This is a story about a boy named Chandler Herrero, and a story about acceptance.
The Early Years
Chandler Herrero is 18 years old and will turn 19 in August. He has blonde hair, wears glasses that sit over kind green eyes, and has his Oak Mountain state championship ring surgically attached to his index finger (not satisfied, however, he says he wants to add to his collection). He is the oldest child of Ashlea and Gonzalo Herrero and he’s a fan of Lionel Messi and roller coasters, but first and foremost he is a fan of Oak Mountain soccer. He is a senior at Oak Mountain High School and a valued member of the community there, and he was born with Down syndrome.
The Herrero’s have lived in Pelham for most of Chandler’ life, and in elementary school Chandler attended Pelham Ridge Elementary, which at the time was still a part of the Shelby County school district. When the time came for Chandler to move to middle school, the school district approached the Herrero’s about a potential move to Oak Mountain.
“Chandler started at Oak Mountain when he was in the sixth grade, because there was not a special needs unit at Riverchase Middle,” Ashlea said in an Oct. 27 interview. “So Shelby County approached us and asked if we would be willing to move to Oak Mountain because they had such a big program.”
That move was, understandably, tense. New surroundings, new teachers and new classmates are all daunting challenges for any middle-schooler to face, not to mention their parents, and the decision to move Chandler to Oak Mountain did not come without much thought and prayer.
“We struggled with it a lot at the beginning,” Ashlea said of the decision to move Chandler to Oak Mountain. “I knew all of the teachers there (at Riverchase), he had been there since he was four, so he had been there for so long. When he moved over to Oak Mountain, I didn’t know any of the teachers, he didn’t know any of the teachers, we didn’t know any of the parents, the student or anyone. All parents, but especially special needs parents, form this community where we watch out for each other and each other’s kids. So I didn’t know any of them at first, but they have been very welcoming to me and to Chandler. So it was definitely the best decision.”
The transition was smooth, and in short time Chandler became ingrained in life at his new school. Over the years Chandler has had the opportunity to get involved with a number of clubs, including Spanish Club and a volunteer after-school program called Phase One, where participating students visited nursing homes and orchestrated food drives. He has been involved in multiple choir shows as well, and has taken classes like zoology and forensic science.
While Chandler has enjoyed all of his extra-curricular activities, he found his true passion two years ago, when the soccer team came calling.
Finding His Team
Daniel DeMasters came to Oak Mountain in 2014 to take over the soccer program, and in his first year he led the Eagles to a state runner-up finish. A Philadelphia native who played his college soccer at Villanova, DeMasters spent time coaching collegiate soccer in the Pennsylvania area before heading south to Birmingham.
While in Pennsylvania, DeMasters’ teams worked with the Friends of Jaclyn Foundation, which aims to improve the quality of life for children battling pediatric brain tumors and other forms of childhood cancer by pairing them with local high school and college teams. Once he arrived at Oak Mountain, DeMasters felt it important to reach out to the special needs teachers and see if there might be a student who would be a good fit to join the team in some capacity. In his second season at Oak Mountain, the 2015-16 school year, he found his guy.
“I really just approached the special education teachers and asked if anybody was peaking their interest,” DeMasters said. “Mrs. (Cynthia) Mace said she had the perfect kid. So I met Chandler, he had energy out the yazoo, and I was just like, ‘This is my kind of kid.’”
Chandler, then a sophomore at Oak Mountain, was also a natural fit to join the soccer team because a number of the then-juniors on that team, Chandler and Christian Thomason, Hunter Holstad, Bryan Kelley and Jaxson Ellis, did a large amount of work away from soccer with special needs students at the high school. Everything from working Special Olympic events to participating in PALS to helping out at summer camps that Chandler was a part of, that group had developed a natural rapport with Chandler, so his transition to the soccer team was an easy one.
While the fit made sense, how it would actually play out was still a mystery, and the level of inclusion Chandler has experienced was not something his parents saw coming.
“I never, ever anticipated how integrated he would be with the team,” Ashlea said. “A lot of times you see the child with special needs kind of on the periphery. But they never left Chandler there. When they won, he won. They were really accepting and included him in everything. Even team dinners, going to different players’ houses to play basketball or video games or whatever, Chandler was always invited.”
In response to that level of inclusion, DeMasters had an easy answer.
“He’s part of the team,” he said simply. “He’s a brother.”
A School-Wide Approach
DeMasters’ decision to involve a special needs student with his program is by no means an anomaly at Oak Mountain. The football team, basketball teams, volleyball team, boys and girls soccer teams, along with other athletic programs at the high school have all benefitted from the presence of special needs students over the years. The cohesiveness that exists between the special education and athletics department at Oak Mountain High School dates back to the birth of the school.
Chris Love, who has been at Oak Mountain since the doors opened in 1999, isn’t completely sure where the tradition started, but traced its origins back to the days of Tony Pugh, the first football coach at Oak Mountain, who first enlisted the help of the special education department to bring some students on board to help the football team. Since then, it has snowballed into what it is today.
Cynthia Mace is the Oak Mountain special education lead teacher, and has been at Oak Mountain since the doors opened in 1999 as well. She is the varsity soccer faculty sponsor and sports her Oak Mountain soccer gear proudly. The 2016-17 school year is her 33rd year teaching special education. She has seen the special education world change drastically during her time as an educator, and has a plethora of stories that make that apparent. At Oak Mountain, she has borne witness to the impact that the informal union between the athletics and special education departments has had for both communities.
“It’s great for those special education kids, but it’s also great for the kids just walking down the halls of Oak Mountain,” Mace said. “They are very accepting. We have special needs kids that might not have been managers for sports teams, but that continue to come back (for games). They still feel like this is their family. We still have kids that come back to all the home football games, all the home basketball games or volleyball games.”
The impact has been palpable and obvious for students in both camps. From a purely social standpoint, the experience Chandler has had has helped spur his development in a unique way.
“Socially it’s been amazing for him,” Ashlea said. “He’s grown and learned so much. He’s like a typical teenaged boy. When he does something, I find myself stopping and thinking, ‘that’s so age appropriate.’ He’s around these typical peers that treat him the same and expect the same. I totally entrust him to them, which is a big deal.”
There are so many moments from the past two years that are stuck in Ashlea Herrero’s memory, moments that will be with her long after Chandler has aged out at Oak Mountain. The fact that Oak Mountain has won back-to-back state titles while Chandler has been a part of the team has no doubt been fun to be a part of, but the connection obviously goes so much deeper than wins and losses.
It’s hard to look back at the past few years, knowing what they have meant for her oldest child, and not get emotional. When she thinks about the last few seasons, however, there is one memory on this day that pops to the surface. She remembers driving Chandler to Collierville, Tenn. in April of this past year, an eight-hour round trip, so that Chandler could be with his team for Oak Mountain’s out-of-state game.
“The boys didn’t know we were coming to that game,” Ashlea said. “We got there a little before the game started, and they were warming up. Chandler is notorious for, when I park the car, he jumps out and runs. He’s not waiting for me, he’s running to his team. They were warming up, and they saw him come running down to the field, and they all started screaming his name. They were so excited he was there, and it made it so worth it. That makes you hold your breath for a minute, it’s a ‘wow’ moment. That they love him and they accept him. And it’s not just because their coach tells them to.”
That is a beautiful image. A boy, so overcome with joy and so impatient to see his team, that the car is hardly in park before he’s out the door running. Running with a smile on his face and love in his heart to a group of teenaged boys just as happy to see him as he is to see them. The picture of love, of acceptance, painted in that simple story says more than any amount of words could. It’s a picture our world would do well to look toward, and is one no one should soon forget.
Chandler certainly won’t.