BRADLEY, Ill. — As Camron Harrell made a tackle, his mom, Shannon Pierce, jumped up and cheered. She noticed the lady next to her did the same thing.
The two struck up a conversation and the woman began talking of a speech Harrell gave his classmates. He told them to vote for her son in a special-needs student council election. The news surprised Pierce. So did the end of the tale.
“The kid came home in tears because this athletic boy that is rocking out on this field made him feel so special,” Pierce said.
Harrell isn’t one to open up about his role in the Bradley-Bourbonnais High School’s Best Buddies program to his family. But his work with special-needs students left as big of an impression on the Iowa defensive back signee as did his speech with his fellow classmate.
“It’s just great seeing people that aren’t as physically able to do things as you are, but are still happy with who they are,” Harrell said. “It’s a great feeling.”
Becoming a buddy
During Harrell’s sophomore year, a teacher told him to give the Best Buddy program a try. The group, created nine years ago, is designed to foster a better relationship between special-needs students and general-studies students. Those in the program spend at least four hours a month outside of school with their peer buddy. Most students see their peer buddy throughout the school day, as well.
Harrell’s buddy for his junior year was his neighbor Albert Hammond. Harrell already knew Hammond, but they started hanging out more. Hammond was a figure at Harrell’s house. They played video games and Hammond wore Harrell’s jersey to football games. The duo loved to joke around, with Hammond always challenging Harrell — and his 10.62-second 100-yard dash time — to a foot race.
“You could definitely tell that Albert looked up to Cam,” Pierce said.
Harrell reveled in being the jock his sophomore year, excelling in football and track. He considered himself the epitome of cool. He wasn’t a bully, but he also didn’t look out for others or consider much beyond his next game or meet.
Spending time with Hammond, and seeing how the special-needs students happily go through their days, changed his mindset.
“It kind of really made me think about what I’m actually blessed with and the talents I’m actually given,” Harrell said.
A ‘reciprocal’ relationship
The way he changed someone’s day just by saying hello forced Harrell to re-evaluate things and made him appreciate what he had. He began viewing sports with a different perspective and appreciated his family more.
“The kids admire him, want to be around and that is reciprocal,” Bradley-Bourbonnais teacher and Best Buddies co-sponsor Kathy Yonke said. “It’s worked both ways. It’s a great thing.”
It came with an added benefit. Harrell is one of the most well-known students on campus and his participation helped shine a light on the program.
“Kids want to be like him,” Yonke said. “He really attends events with us and didn’t do this as a put-it-on-his-résumé kind of thing. To have him involved in our program has been great.”
Harrell paired with family friend and incoming freshman Hunter Evans for his senior year. Harrell helped ease concerns that Evans’ parents had about their son’s transition to high school.
“They said out of all the years Hunter has been in school, now that he’s in high school this has been the best time of Hunter’s life,” Pierce said.
Harrell enjoyed his time with the Best Buddies program. It helped ground him and show him what truly matters.
“I am not going to say I was mean early on, but you learn how to make connections with people and with [the Best Buddies] you have to make a special connection,” Harrell said. “Once you make the special connection there is a friendship that can’t be broken.”
It also extends to their family, who cheered on the jock who made their son’s day.
“The woman will never forget what Cam did for her son,” Pierce said. “It’s why she said she celebrates a little louder when Cam makes a play.”