This is the story of Mike LaSala, 17-year-old captain of the football team and a senior at Wilton High School. Mike, like his two older brothers before him, was picked by his classmates this year to be on the Homecoming court. This Saturday, the senior boys and girls on the court will ride in the parade before the big game, and one boy and girl will be announced as King and Queen at half-time.
As a football player, Mike will be suited up to play with his team so he won’t be able to ride in the parade and take part in half-time crowning festivities. Years ago, when one of Mike’s older brothers was in the same position—on the field and unable to take his place in the court—he asked Mike to sit in his place. But now as the youngest LaSala boy, Mike has no little brother to hold his spot on the Homecoming court Saturday, so he needed to find someone who would be willing to do so.
A popular kid, Mike has lots of friends he could have asked. But he told his parents there was only one person he’d like to give the honor to—Joe Sylvia, the boy next door.
So too is this the story of that boy, Joe, a 14-year-old freshman. He and Mike have been friends and neighbors for the last decade since the LaSalas moved right next door to the Sylvias.
The boys have known one another for years, as part of a larger group of kids who live on their street. The parents tell of regular neighborhood block parties and Halloween get-togethers, and of lots of kids who play together, look out for each other and have a lot of fun.
Ordinarily this might not be the kind of thing deserving of an article or one of my columns. But Mike’s act of friendship is a pretty symbolic and meaningful one. It’s definitely one of friendship, and something that I hope a lot of people take note of.
You see, Joe has autism, and while it certainly isn’t the only thing that defines who Joe is, autism has made navigating social situations and making friends a bigger effort and more complicated process for him. Mike thought offering Joe his spot at Homecoming would be something Joe would really enjoy.
“When I thought of asking Joe, I wasn’t really thinking how could I teach people something; I just thought it would be fun for Joe, because I did it for my brother and it was fun for me. I thought it might be more meaningful for Joe than for one of my friends,” Mike explained.
Mike’s compassion and understanding didn’t surprise Joe’s mom.
“Mike always kept an eye out for Joe. He’d always report back either to his mom or to me, if something happened, especially when they were much younger. He never let anyone be mean to Joe,” Patti Sylvia, Joe’s mom, said.
For someone to reach out to her son in the way Mike did means a lot. Joe has only recently started having an easier time at making friends—and having other kids extend their friendship to him. High school kids have been more welcoming and considerate to Joe, more so than his peers were at Middlebrook or even earlier. There were plenty of times when kids didn’t sit with him at lunch or include him.
“Joe likes having friends. It’s new for him this year. Yes, the kids in Middlebrook weren’t so nice to him, but he didn’t really care, and he wasn’t interested at all. It wasn’t so difficult. But now he wants friends, he wants to be popular, he wants to sit with friends, he wants kids to like him. Before he couldn’t care less, but now he cares. It’s changing his attitude—he’s trying to be polite, and hold doors open for girls, because he wants kids to like him,” Patti explained.
For a mom who knows full well the reality for kids who are different—whether they have autism or other things that set them apart—to get that call from Mike is something Patti does not take for granted. But she also stressed that it speaks volumes about the kind of person Mike is.
“It felt amazing, to know that there are kids who are out there who are able to do this, to take Joe under their wing and try to help him. I think Mike wants Joe to have this same fantastic experience that he had for his brothers. Mike has tons of friends, and anybody would have loved to do this. I was shocked that he asked Joe, but being that it’s Mike—I’m not surprised. That’s how he is.”
Joe’s excitement—it’s pretty infectious
As for Joe, he’s pretty excited about what Saturday holds.
He told me, “I’m going to fill in for somebody. It’s cool.” Knowing how important his role will be stepping in for his friend Mike, Joe wants to look good. He’s planned on wearing a suit. “I’m not nervous. Nope. I think I’m going to do it.”
Joe’s confidence likely came from knowing that there are more and more people around him now at school who genuinely offer their friendship. “I like high school. I like that it’s bigger, and that no matter where you go, there are going to be boys and girls that want to say hello to you,” he said.
Joe’s mom, Patti, said she wasn’t so sure at first that accepting Mike’s offer was the right thing for Joe to do.
“I thought it would be difficult for him. I want him to be able to do this for Michael, but I also don’t want him to do anything that will jeopardize it or embarrass Michael. I want to protect him. I want it to go well and I was nervous. Joe didn’t know what homecoming was, but I explained it to him, and he said, ‘Well, I hope you said yes!’ Of course he wanted to do it. It was silly of me to think that he can’t do it—of course he can. And how can you say no to something like this. He’s thrilled to do it—he loves being with seniors, he loves getting dressed up, he’s thrilled!”
Now it’s something she and Joe’s dad, Ken, are just as excited about. “I want Joe to enjoy the experience, and to have fun doing it. I want people to see that he’s perfectly capable of doing things that everybody else does. He wants to do things that everyone else is doing. He’s tired of people thinking he can’t do things, he wants to do it just like everybody else.”
“Just like everybody else.”
That simple mother’s wish is the thing that seems to be the easiest truth to grasp for the kids around Joe—the kids like Mike: “Joe’s a normal kid. I don’t think there’s much difference. When he was younger, we just looked out for him. We all just treated him normally,” Mike said, adding that Joe will still be treated as a friend on Saturday. “All the girls on the homecoming court are very nice, I’m sure that whoever Joe is with will make sure he’ll be okay.”
Mike’s dad, Steve LaSala, thought that the way his son has reached out to Joe is pretty typical behavior of someone looking out for a younger brother. “We’re a big football family, and Mike’s always wanted to be part of what his older brothers did. So they always did whatever they could to make sure Mike felt included. Mike got to benefit from being on the sidelines as the younger brother, so I think that was important to him and meant something to him, to do the same thing for Joe.”
So while this is the story about Mike LaSala and the story of Joe Sylvia, it’s also a story about brotherhood—maybe not one of blood brothers, but a type of brothers nonetheless. This is a story about acceptance, about friendship, and about seeing past labels of any kind.
Joe Sylvia surpassed the labels once put on him by a doctor who diagnosed him with autism—saying that Joe would never talk, that he’d never be social. Mike LaSala is putting labels like “jock” and “popular” to shame. Both of these boys—and the kids like them at Wilton High School—are showing us that friendship and kindness are much larger and better able to shred those kinds of limiting labels.
People are not just one “thing;” we are more than the way we are first pegged. That’s the experience Joe is now having at school, thanks to friends like Mike by the example he sets every day, and by asking Joe to sit in for him on the Homecoming court. It’s the experience we’ll all have watching Joe in Saturday’s parade as he takes his place surrounded by friends who see one another as just that—friends.
One thing is for sure about Homecoming this Saturday: No matter how the Wilton Warriors football team does in the game, Mike LaSala and Joe Sylvia have won something much, much bigger—and we’re all the better for it.
Wilton High School Homecoming begins at 2 p.m. on Saturday afternoon, Oct. 13, at Guy Whitten Field and Fujitani Memorial Field. Pregame activities include a festival with carnival games, food and entertainment, and the traditional Homecoming Parade. The football game is scheduled to begin at 3 p.m. when the Warriors will take on Norwalk’s Brian McMahon High School.
11:10am The story has been updated to correct the spelling of Joe Sylvia's last name and to clarify the nature of Joe's experience with peers before high school.