Towson coach Pat Skerry and Georgia Tech assistant Tom Herrion are good friends. Each has a son on the autism spectrum, so three years ago they enlisted their coaching colleagues to help raise awareness for the developmental disorder that impacts 1 in 62 children in the United States.
What started as a grassroots, word-of-mouth effort among several dozen Division I coaches wearing a pin on their lapel has grown into Coaches Powering Forward for autism awareness weekend. Anyone watching games on television the next three days will witness the college basketball family supporting the effort. More than 300 coaches, as well as broadcasters and referees are expected to participate.
“This is an awareness game,” Skerry said. “My wife and I hope it will become an acceptance game as people learn more and more about it.”
Skerry’s son, Owen, is seven years old. When he was 18-20 months, Skerry’s wife, Kristen, felt he had not reached several benchmarks that their older son, Ryan, had met at the same age. Skerry was an assistant at Pittsburgh at the time.
“I was probably in denial for a while, but she hit the ground running.” Skerry said. “You just have to work at it every day, kind of like trying to get your team better.”
Skerry understands that challenge well. He was named head coach at Towson in April 2011 and has lifted the Tigers from the ashes. In his first season, the program snapped a Division I record 41-game losing streak. It was their lone victory. The following season, 2012-13, he led the Tigers to the best turnaround in the nation. They finished with an 18-13 record - their first winning season in almost 20 years.
As Skerry built the program his wife handled the daily responsibilities of raising the family.
“She’s a rock star,” Skerry said. “I think for me personally, he’s the toughest kid I know. If he’s sick or hurt you can’t tell. He’s got to grind it out. He’s big into routine. It’s a spectrum, so it’s a wide range. He’s not fully verbal and that’s the biggest challenge.”
In February 2013, Skerry and his wife decided they wanted to raise awareness for autism. With the help of a sorority on campus, he and his staff wore a pin on their suit coat lapel during a game with UNC - Wilmington. Afterward, one of the sorority representatives asked Skerry how they could make a greater impact.
From there, this weekend was born.
Autism Speaks and the National Association of Basketball Coaches (NABC) became involved and the event blossomed. In 2014, there were 82 Division I coaches and broadcasters involved. Syracuse met Duke on ESPN that year and Jim Boeheim and Mike Krzyzewski wore the pin which instantly increased visibility. Last year, it mushroomed to 250 participants. Skerry hopes that one day there will be a preseason game, similar to the Coaches vs. Cancer game held each December to raise money and awareness.
According to autismspeaks.com, 1 in 42 boys in the United States is on the autism spectrum. The occupational therapy and speech therapy autistic children need can cost up to $60,000 per year, which is affordable for a D1 basketball coach but not the average person.
“I can’t look you in the eye and tell you that if I never had a son who had autism that I would be doing this,” Skerry said. “But I get pumped up about it when I’m watching games around the country over the weekend.”
Towson is 18-10 this season and 9-6 in the Colonial Athletic Association. The Tigers play host to Elon on Saturday. One seed planted on that campus four years ago has grown into a three-day nationwide event that brings autism to the forefront while encouraging parents who live with the challenges of autism.
“The hardest thing for most parents is you have to approach it day by day,” Skerry said. “The thing that scares most parents is what happens after you’re gone. Can he get a job? can he be on a team? can he get married?”