MERIDEN — When Maloney High School football players take the field Saturday for the Class L championship game, two of their biggest fans will be right alongside them.
Two Maloney students with autism, Thomas O’Malley and Philip Onwuazor, will be with the Spartans as team managers when the team faces No. 1 seed and defending champion Daniel Hand High School of Madison.
As team managers, O’Malley and Onwuazor help at practices and games by handling equipment and handing out water. Maloney players said having O’Malley and Onwuazor around has been inspiring and they consider the two managers just as important as any other team member.
“They mean everything to the team,” junior middle linebacker Cody Talento said. “When everyone is down in the dumps, they bring everyone back up. They make us strive to do better — to see how much we have and what they could have. Most of us do everything for them, we play for them.”
Senior quarterback Elliot Good, who has lived on the same street as O’Malley for many years, agreed the guys “love him.”
“Having him around on the team is awesome,” Good said. “Just what he brings to the team — he’s always jumping around on the sideline. He gets the guys pumped up. He always kept us working hard and keeps a smile on our face.”
Head coach Kevin Frederick, also a special education teacher at Maloney, said the friendships the two students have built with players has carried over into school.
“They sit with the guys at lunch and high-five them in the hallway,” Frederick said. “It’s good for everyone. It’s good for (O’Malley and Onwuazor), it’s good for my players and it’s good for the other kids in school to see that as an example.”
O’Malley’s parents, Tom and Jen, said the way the Maloney players and coaches have always embraced their son and Onwuazor “speaks volumes” about their character.
“To me, it’s not even like they go out of their way, it’s just natural to them,” Tom O’Malley said.
Jen O’Malley added the players likely won’t “ever truly know what it means to us as” parents to see those relationships.
“Just the love and kindness and support, it means everything,” she said. “You put these kids on the field and their differences disappear and they become a family.”
Jen O’Malley said students on the autism spectrum can get “lost inside themselves,” but her son’s experiences with the football team have given him peer interaction.
Thomas O’Malley has been a team manager for the football team for all four years he’s been at Maloney.
“He was always pulled out by kids shaking his hand or giving him a hug or a pat on the shoulder,” Jen O’Malley said. “It gives him a purpose, makes him feel part of something. It definitely gives him something that we can’t give him or his teachers can’t give him.”
Thomas O’Malley said he’s excited to cheer from the sideline during Saturday’s game, which will be played at New Britain’s Veterans Stadium at 2 p.m.
“It would feel amazing to hand (O’Malley and Onwuazor) the trophy,” Talento said.