By Mark Maxwell
Two rivals met up this weekend to battle for their playoff lives. However, the focus at this game would be on a completely different battle – a battle with autism.
Rivalries set aside, these two teams came together to raise money for Mary’s Piece of the Puzzle, an autism awareness foundation established by T.F. North wide receivers and special teams coach Mike Anaclerio. In October of 2012, colon cancer claimed the life of Anaclerio’s autistic sister, Mary. Mary is survived by her brother, sister and mother.
Anaclerio and Chet Hanson, a sophomore coach from rival T.F. South, formulated a plan to celebrate Mary’s life and raise money for Autism Speaks at the same time. Autism Speaks is a leading autism science and research foundation, commonly known around Chicago for their Soldier Field Autism Walk in May and their Chef’s Soiree every November. The national foundation agreed to support this event, donating promotional materials and setting up a website for donations. Autism Speaks representative Jose Macias told CSNChicago.com that just last month, inclement weather couldn't prevent over 400 motorcyclists from attending the Ride for Autism. The event raised over $75,000.
On Friday night, players from both sidelines wore baby blue wristbands, socks and shoelaces. Autism Speaks also pitched in and donated helmet decals in the shape of autism puzzle pieces. The 50-yard line was painted with two joined puzzle pieces, one red (North) and one yellow (South), representing the union of both teams for this great cause.
Fans also got in on the action, buying baby blue shirts from the players and coaches. These shirts also served as tickets to the game and were accompanied with a raffle ticket for the fundraiser. Two shipments of shirts sold out in less than three days, raising nearly $2,500 for the charity. Some of the raffle items included Curtis Granderson-autographed cleats, a jersey signed by Jay Cutler and a puck signed by Eddie Olczyk.
Several players went the extra mile, volunteering to sell raffle tickets and t-shirts on their spare time. Seniors Jevon Brown and Nikita Smith both jumped at the chance to show support for their coach and raise money for Autism Speaks.
“I asked if I could help out with selling tickets for autism because I understand the story. I have a few people in my family that are autistic so I know where he is coming from. I just wanted to pitch in and help him out,” Brown said.
Smith added, “I got a special relationship with coach Anaclerio. We go way back. Since freshman year, he was always talking to me, keeping me up, keeping me positive. When he lost his sister, I just tried to stay with him and just try to keep him positive.”
The amount of support from the players, coaches and the community was overwhelming and encouraging to Anaclerio and his family. Anaclerio’s sister flew in from San Diego to attend the special game Friday night. Before the game, Anaclerio brought his mother and sister to the 50-yard line where they took part in a ceremonial coin flip. The special coin was crafted to display the autism puzzle piece on one side. The letter ‘M’ was printed on the reverse side of the coin, personalized to reflect the deceased Mary Anaclerio. After the ceremonial toss, Anaclerio presented his mother with the commemorative coin.
T.F. North coach Artie Rogers fully supported the fundraiser and embraced the opportunity to teach his players some important life lessons.
“We talk to the kids about adversity all the time. A lot of kids are faced with a lot of things,” Rogers said. “Sometimes, they think they can't get through it, but they can. There are kids that are out there that have it a lot worse off than they do. We want to teach them about giving back to the community. We're out here for two-and-a-half hours on practice and a game night, but there is more to life than football. We tell our kids, 'You got to put your family first.’”
“I had the privilege of knowing Mary a little bit,” Rogers reminisced. “She was always happy, always pleasant. She could remember things that you would never think she could remember. You know, just that being able to live on their own and do those things - anything that we can do to help, that is what we're here for.”
Raising awareness and donations for Autism Speaks has been a great experience for Anaclerio. Overwhelmed by the love and support from his community, he turned to his players and students to share some valuable perspective.
“When you see someone who looks maybe just a little bit different, it doesn't mean that they are less of a person,” he said. “I've talked to the kids about this during practice and in my classroom. Just because somebody has a disability or doesn't look like maybe me and you look, doesn't mean they are any less of a person. They are people too. They have parents, they have siblings and they have families. To treat that person different is not the right thing to do.”