It’s 5 o’clock on a Wednesday evening at Gold Hill Middle School. The Bulldogs are dressed out in their black and blue uniforms, warming up on the field before taking on the Clover Middle School Blue Eagles in their last home game of football season.
The cheerleaders gather their pom-poms and the players line up for kickoff as the crisp autumn breeze fills their lungs.
The coaches and a couple players, including eighth grader and second year teammate Connor Monteruil, walk out onto the field for the coin toss. They shake hands. George Washington flies through the air, the Blue Eagles kick off and the game begins.
Connor, 14, high fives his teammates, gives them pats on the behind after plays and gathers with them for huddles. He’s often seen leading the team after games to shake hands with the opposing team. Everywhere he goes, at school and around town, peers go out of their way to shout, “Hi, Connor!”
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His reputation of being a jokester precedes him. He enjoys football, NASCAR, video games and hanging out with friends.
Connor is, quite possibly, the most popular guy in school.
He also happens to have cerebral palsy, epilepsy and is non-verbal. He uses sign language and a communication device, but oftentimes the electronics take too long for his liking. Connor prefers to converse with friends through secret handshakes – he has a different one for each of his close friends – high fives and intuition.
“He’s a team member, just like everybody else,” said head coach Tate Hamilton. “(The players) treat him just like a teammate.”
It’s true, Andrea Monteruil, Connor’s mom, says.
“He eats lunch with the football players, they come over outside of school and play video games with him, which has amazed me that the boys even hang out with him after school,” Mom said. “That was always my worst fear – that he wouldn’t be treated well.”
Love of the game
Connor fell in love with football from the time he was a little boy watching older brother Jordan play. Jordan, a senior at Fort Mill High School, has played football since the second grade.
“(Connor’s) addicted, he’s a typical guy. If you try to talk to him during a game, he’ll ignore you,” Andrea said.
He constantly checks ESPN stats on his iPad, and on weekends he’s glued to the television, often watching multiple games on split screens. He cheers for the Clemson Tigers and the Carolina Panthers. In NASCAR, he pulls for the No. 24 car driven by Chase Elliott.
“Football and NASCAR, those are his loves,” said Kelly Monteruil, Connor’s dad.
Like most college football fans in South Carolina who are fans of one of the two universities in the state’s longest and most storied rivalry, Connor unashamedly cheers for the Tigers – and rags on the Gamecocks.
“I’m a big South Carolina Gamecock fan and he’s a big Clemson fan. When he gets off the bus, wearing a (Clemson) shirt, he’s quick to point out what he’s wearing (to me),” Assistant Principal Daniel McCallum said.
“If I have something (Gamecock) on, he gives me the thumbs down and just keeps on walking, doesn’t even give me the time of day,” McCallum laughs. “Regardless of what you see, he’s a middle school boy.”
Connor wants to be a pro football coach when he’s older.
When asked about the Superman shirt he is wearing, Connor signs “Cam Newton.” “He’s a big Cam Newton fan,” Andrea said.
One of the guys
Connor’s teammates say he’s a friend who always makes them laugh, encourages them with his trademark smile and stays by their side with unwavering loyalty.
“He gives us water, cheers us up,” said Brooks Rhinehart, 14. “He gives (the team) motivation – we’re not very good – to keep playing.”
“He motivates me when I’m sad,” agreed Joey Okolita, 13. “He’s on the sidelines cheering for us.”
Connor said his favorite part of being a team member is “friends and Coach Tate (Hamilton.)”
“Brooks and Joey,” Connor signs. “They’re super cool.”
“We hang out at school, we hang out after school,” Joey said. “Just because somebody (has a disability,) doesn’t mean…that they can’t hang out and do normal things.”
“It’s definitely pretty special,” said Kelly, Connor’s dad. “It means the world to (Connor) to actually be on the team and contribute. It’s always heartwarming to see him interacting with the other kids.”
Anywhere Connor goes, infectious laughter follows.
“The other kids seem to know what he’s talking about better than I do,” Kelly laughs.
“He’s the funniest kid ever…he’s hilarious,” Brooks said.
“He likes to joke around, that’s for sure,” agreed Coach Hamilton.
“With all of the challenges he’s faced in his life, it hasn’t impacted his personality,” said McCallum, the assistant principal. “He’s got a personality that speaks without him speaking.”
“It’s (Connor,)…it’s his magnetic personality,” Mom said.