Woodbridge crowns popular student with Down syndrome homecoming king

Woodbridge crowns popular student with Down syndrome homecoming king
  1. Woodbridge crowns popular student with Down syndrome homecoming king
    The school-community’s tribute to Patrick epitomizes the spirit of National Down Syndrome Awareness M…
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Patrick Petro crowned WHS homecoming king

Ambar Coto and Patrick Petro were crowned homecoming queen and king at Woodbridge High School on Friday night.(Photo: Brian Price)


Sitting inside the same football stadium where he once was a star quarterback, Darin Petro beamed with pride as his son, Patrick, an 18-year-old Woodbridge High School senior with Down syndrome who serves as the gridiron squad’s team manager, was crowned homecoming king on Friday night.

The coronation was a testament to Patrick’s immense popularity and reflects an exemplary attitude of inclusion at Woodbridge, whose principal, Glenn Lottmann, moved to the township’s Port Reading section before becoming an administrator to position his own three young children to one day attend the high school.

“Every principal says how much they love their school, but I can’t wait for my kids to go there,” said Lottmann, who called Patrick being voted homecoming king “my proudest moment as a principal, and I’ve had many.”

With the public address announcer’s declaration of Patrick as the Class of 2018’s homecoming king, the overflow crowd on the home bleachers at Nicholas A. Priscoe Stadium erupted with a thunderous standing ovation. Patrick’s mother, Dawn, positioned alongside her husband on field level adjacent to the tunnel from where the Barrons enter, was overwhelmed with joy. She jumped up and down before giving Darin a hug. Above the proud parents, a throng of their son’s supporters held a 12-foot-wide banner bearing the words “We Love You Patrick!” as they chanted the new homecoming king’s name. After receiving his crown and sash at midfield, Patrick posed for a group photo with the homecoming court, saying in between snapshots, “I have to get back on the field for the second half.”

The school-community’s tribute to Patrick epitomizes the spirit of National Down Syndrome Awareness Month, held each October to celebrate people with the syndrome and to heighten awareness about the condition.

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According to the National Down Syndrome Society, more than 6,000 babies – or one in every 700 – are born annually in the United States with Down syndrome, the most commonly occurring chromosomal condition in which an individual has a full or partial extra copy of chromosome 21.

The number of babies born with Down syndrome has decreased 30 percent, according to the American Journal of Medical Genetics, a decline which the medical journal Prenatal Diagnosis attributes to nearly 70 percent of pregnancies being terminated following a prenatal diagnosis of Down syndrome.

Making it abundantly clear he did not want to enter a pro-life or pro-choice political or religious debate, Darin said he has contemplated those statistics and wonders if prospective parents of children with Down syndrome “know the joy Patrick has brought to us.”

“We’ve had difficulties but we’ve learned a lot of things,” Darin said. “The joys outweigh the downtimes. I think some parents never get to experience that.”

On Friday night, before Woodbridge’s annual homecoming game against township rival J.F. Kennedy, Patrick, as has been his role for the past two years, led the Barrons onto the gridiron and joined the team captains at midfield for the opening coin toss.

Patrick Petro joins the Woodbridge High School football team captains on the field for Friday night's coin toss. (Photo: Brian Price)

“He is the heart and soul of our team,” Woodbridge defensive coordinator Joe Liquori said. “Patrick brings more enthusiasm than almost every other player. He’s a joy to be around. His love for the game puts things in perspective for you. You can be any size, you can have any background. If you have that love and passion, that’s what the game is all about.”

Clad in his home black jersey with a red numeral 49 outlined in white trim, Patrick assumed his usual position on the Woodbridge sideline, cheering on the Barrons while watching every play with the intensity of a head coach. Patrick’s demeanor fluctuated with the outcome of every snap as he rode the emotional roller coaster of a sporting event with the passion of a die-hard fan.

Darin instilled a love of the game in Patrick, who started playing in the township’s challenger football program a decade ago. Patrick is one of 10 current members of the Woodbridge Golden Saints flag football challenger team, which features players from ages 5 through 25 with varying skill levels.

“Patrick started off as a very young player and he has matured over the years to become a very fine player who excels on the field,” said Anthony Reichardt, a league coordinator who ensures all participants get an opportunity to play every position and to score a touchdown. “(Challenger football) helps them all with their motor skills. We go out there and try to get the most out of (the experience) for them. It doesn’t matter if they can do it or not. We’ve had kids over the years in wheelchairs out there, others that can run and some that are afraid, and we work through all of that so all the kids feel like they are a star out on the field.”

Patrick Petro plays flag football with the Woodbridge Township's Challenger Program. (Photo: ~submitted photo)

In addition to playing challenger football, Patrick attends every Woodbridge practice. He gets dressed with the players in the locker room, prepares the ball bags and counts out 11 yellow helmet covers for the scout team.

“After school, his aides walk him down to the stadium for practice and they can’t keep up with him,” Woodbridge athletics director Joe Ward said. “He’s itching to be with the team.”

Woodbridge commences practice with special teams, so Patrick ensures the placekicker and punter are well-equipped with kicking tees and balls. He has served as a ball boy and water boy on game nights, and steps onto the field for every defensive or offensive unit meeting during time outs. Patrick takes part in the team's weekly pasta dinners. He wears a shirt and tie to school on Thursdays, a requirement of all Woodbridge players, some of whom help Patrick with his shirt buttons and necktie.

“He’s part of the team,” Woodbridge head coach Kevin Coleman said. “They consider him one of the guys. We treat him just like everybody else. If he’s not doing something right, I yell at him. I’ll say, ‘Let’s go. You didn’t get the (kicking) block today.’ He doesn’t feel any different. He’s just a great kid.”

Darin dropped Patrick off at the high school last Saturday and, before driving away, caught a glimpse in his rearview mirror of his son interacting with the Barrons as they received some last-minute instructions on the field prior to boarding the team bus for a road game. A group of players stood shoulder to shoulder on the sideline and Patrick, starting at the front of the line, high-fived each one.

“It actually touched my heart,” Darin said. “The kids seem to like when he’s there. They look out for him. It’s really nice. I think (Patrick’s presence) probably hits everybody a little differently. It’s got to be special to see this kid rooting them on. They are capable of being on the field and he’s not. I’m sure it teaches them compassion, without a doubt, to say, ‘Look how fortunate I am.’”

Woodbridge High School's Patrick Petro, an 18-year old student with Down syndrome, was crowned homecoming king on Friday night. (Photo: Brian Price)

Darin quarterbacked the 1983 Woodridge team, which ranks among the best in school history, averaging 23.9 points per game, to an 8-2 record and a Middlesex County Athletic Conference title. His 14-career touchdown passes rank sixth all-time at the school, according to Woodbridge football historian Nick Sardone. Darin’s brother-in-law, Mike Doering, was a star running back at Woodbridge during the 1983 campaign. Doering ranks among the Top 10 in several single-season and career offensive categories, most notably second with 17 touchdowns in 1983 and fourth with 2,112 career all-purpose yards.

Darin began courting Doering’s sister several years after graduating high school when he invited Dawn to attend a wedding reception. Not long after, the couple were themselves married. They have two children including Patrick’s six-year-old brother Parker.

Darin has shown Patrick some game footage from his Woodbridge playing days, but nothing the proud father accomplished on the gridiron compared to what he and Dawn witnessed during halftime of Friday night’s game as their son was named homecoming king.

“To be voted by his peers is an amazing thing,” Darin said. “It’s a testament to the type of kid he is and how he’s accepted. He’s a really personable kid. It seems like everybody who meets him just genuinely likes him. He loves being involved with all the kids.”

Patrick is one of eight students and the only one with Down syndrome in Woodbridge High School teacher Karen Tulko’s special needs class. Darin said Patrick reads and writes well and that Patrick’s “communication skills are his biggest asset for school.”

Patrick Petro (49) walks out of the tunnel and onto the field for homecoming ceremonies on Friday night. (Photo: Brian…

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