The good guy: How professional wrestling helped a boy rise above Down syndrome
On the day my cousin Chris was born, January 31, 1974, the doctors gave my Uncle Al and Aunt Teresa the grimmest of prognoses.
“Don’t take him home. The nuns will take care of him. He won’t make his first birthday.”
Forty-four birthdays later, I wonder what those doctors would make of Chris Longhitano now.
I wonder what they’d think of the fact that he’s competed in hundreds of Special Olympics events. I wonder what they’d make of his high school years in the early 1990s, when he led the Horace Greeley Quakers football team onto the field each game, arm-in-arm with the star quarterback.
And I wonder what they’d think about the time he stood in the middle of the professional wrestling ring at Madison Square Garden with 20,000 people cheering him.
I know what I’d say to them:
“Not every kid gets to live out his or her dream. But Chris Longhitano did. And he did it in the spotlight at the World’s Most Famous Arena.”
Chris was born with Down syndrome. The third of three boys, Chris fell in love with sports, tagging along with his dad and older brothers, Lou and Doug, to youth soccer practice.
As a child with the genetic disorder, it wasn’t an uncommon sight for my aunt and uncle to peep out their kitchen window and see Chris singing the Star Spangled Banner before holding a baseball game of his own on their front lawn.
In 1979, Chris joined North East Westchester Special Recreation, a community-based therapeutic recreation agency that serves people with developmental disabilities. When he joined North East as a 5-year-old, Chris was less than half the age of the next youngest child.
Four decades later, Chris is an adult, by age. But he’s still that kid at heart, the kid who pretends his front lawn is center field at Yankee Stadium.
Through his life, he’s played golf on oceanfront courses, he’s won vacation shuffleboard and bocce ball tournaments and he’s stood atop many a Special Olympics podium.
But it’s Chris’ love for professional wrestling that rises above the rest of his sporting passions. It will once again Sunday night, when he watches the WWE’s grandest annual show, Wrestlemania. It’s the same event he and I would watch together two decades ago on his collection of grainy, hand-scribbled VHS tapes.
— WWE (@WWE) April 5, 2017
Chris will watch back at home after he and his parents make the hour drive north from Weill Cornell Medical Center. Chris has been at the Manhattan hospital after completing his eighth round of chemotherapy since he was diagnosed with Acute Myeloid Leukemia in September 2016. And on March 21, World Down Syndrome Day, he received a stem cell transplant from his oldest brother, Lou.
In all, Chris has spent 95 nights in the hospital. This past week he, once again, lost his hair due to the chemo. But when I called him Friday morning to ask him for his predictions for Wrestlemania’s Sunday main event, he was his usual chipper self.
“Hey, Tone,” Chris screamed excitedly into the hospital phone.
“Hey, pal,” I replied. “So who’s going to win the title Sunday night? Brock Lesnar or Roman Reigns?”
“Roman,” Chris replied, surely.
“Why, bud?” I asked.
“Because,” he explained to me for, seemingly, the thousandth time in my life. “He’s the good guy.”
To Chris, much of life is a simple as that: good overcoming evil.
Yes, Chris is sick right now. But he still lives for the thrill of competition, of sport.
And he remembers it all. When I spoke to him Friday morning, he recalled the details of the time in 1994, when he attended a Wrestlemania of his own, at Madison Square Garden. He remembered specifics about the legendary first-ever “ladder match” between Razor Ramon and Michaels.
Fifteen years later, in November 2009, Chris ended up in the ring at Madison Square Garden with Michaels. At the end of WWE’s weekly Monday Night RAW show, Chris was invited into the ring by Michaels and Triple H.
The Adonis-like wrestlers pulled him over the barricade and shoved him in-between the bottom and middle ropes, up onto the elevated canvas.
Once there, Chris stood next to the two wrestlers and executed their “Degeneration X” gestures in synchrony.
As he left the ring, Chris saluted the crowd with a Richard Nixon-like peace sign. In unison, the crowd exalted with the same kind of raucous applause Chris and I used to mimic two decades ago, during those times in his bedroom when we’d pop in those VHS tapes of Wrestlemania and imitate our childhood heroes.
On that night, Nov. 16, 2009, as she stood under the bright lights, Chris was my hero. He was my brother.
And, to those 20,000 fans in attendance, he was the good guy.
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