TAMPA — Despite an ailing 7-footer, the physical toll of a recent two-game road swing, and a losing streak to UCF stretching nearly a half-decade, Brian Gregory knew Saturday’s game against the Knights was in the bag.
In fact, the USF third-year coach knew it the evening before. The way he observed it it, once Friday night’s motivational speaker was finished, so was UCF.
“I just knew we were gonna win the game,” Gregory said.
What the speaker ― 14-year-old eighth-grader Robert Herrion ― might have lacked in eloquence, he compensated with courage and candor. Diagnosed as a high-functioning autistic child, Robert ― son of Bulls assistant Tom Herrion ― educated and encouraged the Bulls during a 2½-minute address.
“All of us with autism are unique, but so are all of you,” Robert Herrion told the team.
“We are all people. Every one of us here in this room has different talents and gifts. We should love each other for who we are.”
Saturday’s contest, a 64-48 Bulls triumph, was USF’s annual Autism Awareness game, an NCAA-backed event now observed nationally. The initiative was launched six years ago by Tom Herrion and Towson coach Pat Skerry, a close friend who also has a son on the autism spectrum.
Coaches nationwide wear blue pins in the shape of a puzzle piece during Autism Awareness and Acceptance weekend.
“Being on the spectrum means there are many different ways autism affects people,” Robert Herrion told the Bulls. “Autism is not a disease that people get, it is a disorder in the brain that we’re born with.”
And it’s four times more likely to affect boys than girls, according to Autism Speaks. Also on that spectrum is 21-year-old USF team manager Brandon Matthews, in his fourth season with the Bulls.
Both he and Robert were behind the bench Saturday.
The way Gregory saw it, they were behind Saturday’s victory too, perhaps more than they realized.
“It speaks volumes to the leadership of (Gregory) and the type of kids we have in our program to rally around a cause that they witness each and every day,” Tom Herrion said.
“For our family it was an awesome day, and we thank the entire USF athletics staff, students and Bulls Nation for helping to make such a memorable moment.”