Sam Piazza can’t hold back tears of sadness and joy when he recalls life growing up.
“I was bullied,” Piazza, now 29, said. “It wasn’t fun because they called me a dork. They called me a loser.”
He was ostracized as a child for his Down syndrome. But it turned around as a teenager, when students at Gaither High School called him royalty and voted him king of the homecoming court in 2009.
“I felt honored,” Piazza said. “They didn’t treat me any different.”
The homecoming recognition inspired local documentary filmmaker Renee Warmack to chronicle Piazza’s life. But within hours of meeting Piazza in 2009, she realized homecoming king would not be his crowning achievement. Warmack promised to revisit Piazza to document the success she was confident he would achieve as an adult.
The result is the documentary Because of Sam, which premieres Monday at Tampa Theatre.
“This is a homegrown story, about a hometown hero that will transform how the world views people with disabilities, and inspire all people,” Warmack said.
The documentary title was inspired by an oft-used quote from people moved by Piazza’s accomplishments to chase their own dreams.
“They say, ‘I did this because of Sam,’” Warmack said.
Piazza’s mom Ruth Piazza admits she was initially hesitant about sending him to a school not specifically geared to educate and accept someone with Down syndrome.
She recalled visiting Shore Elementary Magnet School of the Arts, which she said had never had a student with a disability. The principal, she said, asked about her expectations.
“I want it all,” she said. “That is what they gave him. He had regular classes and the support he needed.”
From there it was on to Orange Grove Middle Magnet School of the Arts and then Gaither where he joined ROTC, served as manager of the boy’s basketball team and first ventured into community service.
Still, he also tried out for the junior varsity basketball team and cried when he was cut. So when Piazza told his parents he was set on becoming homecoming king, they were worried students would mock their son and he would again experience heartbreak.
“We always want to protect him,” Piazza’s mother said. “But we have to let him chase his dreams too.”
Piazza’s acceptance speech, which he wrote, read, “It is an honor to be part of a community that has been so willing to look at everyone as a unique individual with different talents.”
He was crowned to thunderous applause in the school cafeteria and then danced with his queen to Graham Colton’s Best Days.
Today Piazza lives with his parents and works 25 hours a week at PDQ Carrollwood.
“I wash dishes, run food to people, whatever they need,” he said. “It’s real awesome.”
Nick Reader, the CEO of PDQ, called Piazza the face of that restaurant. He recalled a Thanksgiving when Piazza coached a team during PDQ’s annual employee flag football game.
“He gave a speech when his team was down,” Reader said. “They won and they carried him off the field. His positivity is infectious.”
Piazza brings the same attitude as an advocate for those with Down syndrome. He volunteers at the nonprofit Best Buddies, educates Hillsborough County deputies on how to interact with people with Down syndrome and mentors kids at GiGi’s Playhouse Tampa Down Syndrome Achievement Center.
“If they are bullied, I tell them it is not right. That is not how people should treat people with disabilities,” Piazza said. “I tell them do not focus on the negatives. Focus on the positives. This is how God made me. He gave me parents, two older siblings and my friends.”
His mom hopes the movie teaches people that hiring those with disabilities is not a “one-way street.”
“They give as much to the work environment as they get,” she said.
Still, the film also documents the struggles.
“I get tired of hearing the R-word,” Piazza says in the documentary trailer.
Warmack hopes to adapt Because of Sam into a narrative feature film. Piazza wants to portray the adult-version of himself to launch his acting career.
“I want to be one of those top guys like Dwayne Johnson, Mark Wahlberg and John Cena,” he said. “It would be awesome to be in a movie with them and meet those guys. That would be the most amazing thing.”
It may seem like a long shot, but Piazza’s mother has learned to never tell her son that something is impossible.
“If you have a disability,” Piazza said, “you still follow your dreams.”
Contact Paul Guzzo at email@example.com or follow @PGuzzoTimes.
If you go
Because of Sam
$12.50, $9.50 members. 7:30 p.m. Monday. Tampa Theatre, 711 N Franklin St. (813) 274-8286. tampatheatre.org.