Emilio Morano can hardly walk 30 yards without being stopped by a fan.
Morano, 68, a heavy set man with inch-thick fingers and an even thicker Long Island accent, seems like he'd fit in better on a Brooklyn sidewalk than on his way to the River Ridge High School football field — except, maybe, for the hat with embroidered Peanuts characters.
"Kids love the hat," he said.
He had barely finished the sentence before he was stopped again.
He whirled around and looked down at a tiny girl with Down syndrome. She was barely hip-height even with her pig-tails, but she could still see above his hat brim.
"Yes, that's who that is," he said, bending down so she could account for all the characters on the hat.
He chuckled and was on his way back to the field to find his athlete, Tim Grindall, a 20-year-old River Ridge High student who has cerebral palsy.
Earlier, Special Olympics Global Messenger and athlete Carlos Ortiz had declared the day of the West Pasco summer games to be his favorite of the year. Among the people he thanked were the 600 volunteers, including Morano.
"You just look around and it's all on its way. And it's all because of the volunteers," said Val Lundin, Special Olympics county coordinator.
"It's a big responsibility when you take someone's child," she said, "especially with special needs."
Volunteers have to make sure their athletes' medical and parent release forms and school district permission slips are turned in. Morano had already taken care of Grindall's.
They have to stay on top of the athlete's medications and schedules, Because Grindall can't feed himself, Morano had crushed up his allergy pills that morning and fed them to him in strawberry yogurt.
They have to pass a background check. Easy for Morano. He's been doing this since before most of the other volunteers were alive.
Morano was thrown into the world of special needs in 1963. He was working as a butcher in Long Island when his daughter was born with Down Syndrome. He was 19 at the time.
Back then, children with special needs were usually sent to institutions. Sometimes, they were kept in closets, never to be seen again by their families. His daughter, Denise, could have been one of them.
Morano still remembers what the doctor said to him in the hospital:
"Do you want us to take her away?"
"Absolutely not," he said.
After that, Morano went head first into special needs advocacy.
A black-and-white photo from an October 1970 issue of the Long Island News shows a slim Morano with a long Italian face, nervously looking down a table of commissioners to ask for more teachers, facilities and money for special needs students.
Since then, Morano has volunteered alongside Maria Shriver at the Special Olympics at Ebbets Field in Brooklyn. He's taken special needs soccer teams to state competitions. He's volunteered with hundreds more students in Pasco County.
The key, he says, is to let them do that they want. He spends 26 hours a week after school with Grindall, but he likes to give him independence when he can.
"Believe me," he said, "Children express themselves. They know what they want."
That's why he left Grindall's side Thursday afternoon. Grindall had a 25-meter race at 1:40 p.m. Morano knew he could handle it.
He heard one of his former students, Autumn Lappert, an 11-year-old girl with autism, was doing another race on the other side of the campus. He'd been working with her since she was 6 and was one of the people who taught her to read.
He walked through Olympic village. Past the dunking booths and other games and the group of boys dancing with blue mouths and Sno-cones in their hands.
He walked down to the track. No Autumn. Then back up to the Olympic village. She popped out of the crowd and hugged him.
He bent down and put his hands on his knees to look her in the eye.
"How'd ya do?" he asked, smiling.
"So, what's up?"
"Ya don't know?" He laughed his big laugh and ruffled her hair.
Then it was back up to the field to catch Grindall's race. He hustled down the side of the track where he saw another volunteer.
"He didn't go yet, did he?" Morano asked urgently.
But Grindall was already on the other side of the finish line. Morano threw his hands in the air.
But it was hard for him to be upset. Grindall had a second-place ribbon and was all smiles.
He had one more event: the softball toss. In his gruff accent, Morano barked encouragement the whole time.
Grindall threw, just like they'd practiced.
"Good, Tim! That's even better ... Yep, I like that one."
With another red ribbon, Morano sent his athlete over to the Olympic Village.
Go ahead," he said. "Have fun."
Alex Orlando can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 869-6247.