When Justin Gregorich dived into a pond on Wednesday, he had no idea it would be like this when he came up for air.
Along with two other rescuers, the Countryside High School freshman saved an 82-year-old Orlando man whose car careened off the road and was sinking in a retention pond.
Since then, Justin's life has been a whirlwind of national media attention, high fives and pats on the back at school and phone calls from strangers who were touched by his story.
"Everybody's making a big deal of it," Justin said Friday night at a surprise party in his honor, where about 40 friends and relatives gathered for pizza and burgers. "I don't really think it's a big deal."
Justin, 14, entered the national spotlight on Wednesday after the rescue of Raymond Kane, who had lost control of his Lincoln Town Car while rounding a bend on State Road 580, flattening a chain-link fence and barreling into the water. Along with Michael McBrayer and Shawn Brady, Justin helped get Kane out of the locked car and swam him to shore.
Kane, 82, suffered only minor injuries. In a statement read on the Today show on NBC, he called Justin's action's heroic and unselfish and wished him luck with football tryouts.
The story was even more compelling because Justin, who desperately wants to join Countryside's junior varsity football team in the fall, had left a weightlifting session early before he walked past the pond. Other students had been teasing Justin, who has Tourette's syndrome and obsessive-compulsive disorder, because the 5-foot-3, 130-pounder couldn't lift as much weight as other players.
On Thursday and Friday, Justin's story spread from the Tampa Bay area, running in newspapers and on news stations across the country. Matt Lauer, a Today show anchor, interviewed Justin and the other rescuers, both of Dunedin, via satellite from Safety Harbor.
Since then, the Gregoriches' home has been in a glorious frenzy, said Jim Gregorich, Justin's dad. Calls are coming in from old friends, well-wishing strangers and radio and television stations from as far away as Seattle. Requests for an interview with the boy hero came in spades, from the major television networks and other news shows, including The Ellen DeGeneres Show and MSNBC. Celebrity anchor Deborah Norville of MSNBC called the Gregoriches herself.
There was more.
Checkers, the burger fast-food chain, planned to send Justin coupons for a year's supply of free combo meals. The National Tourette Syndrome Association hopes to profile him in their monthly newsletter. At Countryside High his act was lauded over the in-school news station.
The mayor of Metropolis, Ill., spent some time Friday tracking down Justin so she could present him with the Official Superman Award, which is given to "people who stand for truth, justice and the American way."
"Not only does this kid have a grasp of his own situation, but he really has a grasp of the world," said Metropolis Mayor Beth Clanahan, who saw Justin's interview on the Today show. She planned to ship Justin an award with some Man of Steel stuff, along with a football signed by the local football team.
Many of the letters and phone calls _ there have been nearly 100 since Thursday morning _ have come from strangers, said Jim Gregorich.
One woman called "just to say hello to the hero of the house," Gregorich said.
He saved another voice mail message from a Dunedin man who spoke about Justin's bravery. "Then he paused, and he said, "Football's just a game, and your son has so much more,' " Gregorich said.
On Friday afternoon, as his son was shooting paintballs with a friend outside, Jim Gregorich said the experience has been a boost for Justin, who is in a program for learning-disabled students.
"God made him the way he is . . . and I think he is realizing that there is a lot of good in that," Gregorich said. "When you get knocked down a lot, sometimes your self-esteem gets really hammered. He's realizing that to a lot of other people, he's special."
_ Contact Nora Koch at nkochsptimes.com or call (727) 445-4165.