Big Blue's newest linebacker has a son with Autism. Daily struggles, sleepless nights and raising awareness are all things Mr. Boley and I have in common...
On February 28th, Giants General Manager Jerry Reese inked free-agent Michael Boley to a five-year contract. As excited as I am about the much needed passion and ability Boley brings to the linebacker unit , there's another passion in his life that means just as much - if not more - to him than football. It's his mission to raise funds, awareness and hope for those affected by Autism. While I can't relate to Boley's relationship with football (my football experience is limited to a single lackluster season in pee-wee league, retired at the ripe old age of 9), I can more than relate to his relationship with his son, Mikey.
My son, Jimmy, has Autism. From what I've been able to research on Boley's son, it seems little Mikey's Autism isn't quite as "severe" as Jimmy's. I use quotes for the term "severe" because people with Autism are like snowflakes; no two are exactly alike (I'll place quotes around any term I feel I'm using only for lack of a better one). The dynamic range of characteristics and issues associated with Autism is mind-boggling. Some will eat anything while others have diets limited to 10 or 12 different food items. Linguistically their speech can be fluent but quirky, extremely limited or repetitive, or completely non-existent. Some can dress themselves while others can't. Some can play an instrument or beat world champion gamers at Madden NFL '09, while others haven't mastered the ability to use a fork and knife.
My son? Jimmy learned to swim the length of our pool - underwater - when he was 7 years old. He's been able to navigate computer games and learning programs at lightning speed since the age of 6. After years of hard work, we were finally able to help him become fully toilet trained this past summer. When was 10 years old.
Every day brings another challenge; many of which have nothing to do with teaching your child to read or improve living skills. There's battles with school districts for services and placement, which can become so ugly that legal intervention is necessary. Long-standing relationships with friends (and even family members) might suffer, depending on their ability to deal with children of this nature. And unless your child has the "mildest" forms of Autism, an elevated level of attention and thought must be given to things that most would consider relatively superficial; like putting your child on a school bus, whether a playground is fenced in, or walking across a mall parking lot.
These are things that Michael Boley deals with every day, all the while maintaining a high level of professional committment to his performance on the football field.
Michael Boley grew up in Alabama. In 2000, his girlfriend Kelly Lankford gave birth to Mikey. According to Boley, he began seeing signs of Mikey "behaving differently than most kids his age" during his frequest visits with his son. In 2003, as he was going through the process of being drafted by Southern Mississippi, Boley filed for and received primary custody of Mikey. The judge ruled that Boley and his new wife, Chantelle would be better suited to provide Mikey educational and developmental opportunities. But Michael and Chantelle were not prepared for what was to come; Mikey's constant screaming, temper-tantruming and hitting became more than the Boleys - and the revolving door of caretakers who came and went - could handle.
Home life began to improve when the Boleys eventually moved to Dacula, Georgia and enrolled their son in a public school that had facilities to work with autistic children. Chantelle - who happened to be a pediatric special needs caretaker, helped Michael learn sign language to better communicate with Mikey. In 2006 - with help from Falcons senior director of player development Kevin Winston - they were able to hire an in-home caretaker specializing in autistic children (who still works with Mikey, and the two have apparently built a tight bond). The Falcons front office also helped out by securing placement for Mikey at the Marcus Institue in Atlanta, which specializes in teaching kids with developmental and neurological disorders. It was at the Marcus Institute where Boley was informed that Mikey would officially be diagnosed as autistic; two years earlier, when Mikey was 5 years old.
"He would have been a whole lot better a whole lot further ahead, if he'd got it say when he was a year and a half to two years." Boley said back in 2007. "He's better than when I got him... He didn't speak at all when we got him. He has his good days and bad days. A bad day is when he hits and won't listen. A good day is when he pretty much follows the rules and just has fun. He's usually pretty happy".
And now - after four seasons with the Falcons - Michael Boley won't be able to hang his jersey in the Georgia Dome locker room anymore. And another unavoidable eventuality; he probably won't be hanging his hat in Dacula for very long.
His new job is located in East Rutherford, and uprooting his son from his home in Dacula will undoubtedly be a concern that requires a number of major decisions. The Boleys are no longer married (Michael was arrested and charged with assaulting Chantelle on May 3rd of last year), but even though she's been living out of state, Chantelle remains a consistent presence in Mikey's life. For anyone who isn't aware, routine and consistency are an absolute necessity for a special needs child. Especially an autistic child, where coping with society and simply getting through day-to-day tasks can feel like massive stimulation overdose; a steady foundation or "home base" is essential for them.
Should Boley retain custody of Mikey, real estate value and location won't necessarily be his primary concerns; school districts -specifically their special needs programs and the services they have to offer - will be. Services are rights, plain and simple. Yet you would be amazed at the stark contrasts between different school districts; not only in what services they're willing to provide, but in how hard they'll force parents to fight tooth and nail for everything "afforded" to them. Unfortunately, it's all too common to find one district that's accomodating, supportive and professional - while it's neighboring district next door is only concerned with budgets and maintaining the 'bottom line". I like to refer to those districts as "Circus Acts", because they force special needs families to jump through hoops for their services, while they walk the high-wire of fiscal reallocation and educational politics.
However the situation works itself out, there's no doubt Boley will continue his fine work in raising funds and awareness for autism. Boley has participated in the annual Georgia Walk for Autism event, as well as hosting fundraisers for the Marcus Institute and Easter Seals of Northern Georgia. In 2008 he organized and hosted The Michael Boley Step Show For Autism with Cardinals defensive end Travis LaBoy, who's brother is autistic. Coincidentally, the Super Bowl Step Show took place in Old Town Scottsdale, Arizona - just five days before his new team defeated the Patriots in Super Bowl XLII.
While he needs to hold himself accountable and work through for the more publicized aspects of his personal life, I for one can only wish Boley and his son the best of luck in getting through this transition. I've lived through it, and I know the frustrations. Maybe Michael Boley will be one of the tens of thousands faces seen walking the boardwalk at Jones Beach this fall for Autism Speaks.
I know I will be.
Sources - AP (George Henry, 11/9/2007); Atlanta Journal-Constitution (Steve Wyche, 10/11/06); Giants.com (transcript, 3/3/09); 11Alive.com (Donna Lowry, 4/14/2008)