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It's the Spirit That Moves Him

Though shunned in high school, a disabled man is the one whom cheering fans have embraced as Pacifica High's unofficial team mascot for 30 years.

September 05, 2000|BEN BOLCH | TIMES STAFF WRITER

GARDEN GROVE — He emerges from between the bleachers, sporting a boy's bowl cut that stands out against his 48-year-old face, marching down the sideline with an unmistakable sense of purpose. The crowd leaps to greet him.

"All right, everybody up, let's make some noise!" he yells as he launches Pacifica High fans into a cheer: "Gimme a 'P!' " he begins, trying his best to form the letter with his arms. One letter follows another, and with the final "A," he whirls onto one knee and the crowd roars its approval. A lopsided grin splits his face.

Ask anyone on campus about this beloved figure they call "Peter Pacifica" and most likely they'll gush niceties. Why, he's the spirit of Pacifica. The team's unofficial mascot. The school's No. 1 fan.

They politely look past, or no longer see, the developmental disabilities that led to the cruelty he endured when he attended this same school more than 30 years ago.

For the Record
Los Angeles Times Monday September 11, 2000 Home Edition Southern California Living Part E Page 3 View Desk 2 inches; 64 words Type of Material: Correction
Family matters--A story Tuesday about Gary Freeman, a developmentally disabled man who serves as a team spirit leader for Pacifica High School in Garden Grove, incorrectly characterized the advice he got from his mother when he graduated from Pacifica. She encouraged him to find a job. The story also misstated when Mitchell Freeman learned about his brother's role as a team spirit leader at Pacifica. At the time, Mitchell Freeman was an incoming freshman.

His name is Gary Freeman. When he walked through the front doors of Pacifica High for the first time in 1965, he had already grown numb to the name calling in elementary school and junior high. What he wasn't prepared for was the physical abuse and the unique brand of humiliation that only insecure teens can deliver.

The cool kids picked on the nerds. The nerds picked on the kids in special education. And almost everybody picked on Freeman.

For a boy whose brain damage had made him markedly slow, "it was like being on a barbarian ship with pirates on it," Freeman recalls, the hurt still evident in his voice.

Lunchtime meant eating alone in some faraway nook where others in the cafeteria wouldn't point and laugh. On the bus, he never had to shove his backpack to the floor because no one wanted to sit next to him. Home wasn't a haven either. Neighborhood bullies egged his car. They stuck lit firecrackers in the screen door. A dead rabbit was strung across the porch steps.

There was only one place where Freeman felt safe: the high school football field.

He was first drawn there on Friday nights to escape his neighborhood enemies. He stayed because the football players--stereotypically the very teens known for instigating harassment--offered Freeman a measure of kindness he found nowhere else.

The sophomore became the team's water boy, helping out during games. Whatever task or errand begged to be completed, Freeman would take care of it. He would beam when players recognized him and waved hello on their way to class. He became a constant figure at pep rallies and games.

For the first time, he felt like he belonged and was needed.

When he graduated in 1969, Freeman had nowhere to go. College wasn't an option, and his mother discouraged him from finding a job.

So the next fall, he went back to Pacifica. And when the Mariners' 2000 football season gets underway Friday with a game against Woodbridge High at Bolsa Grande High, Freeman will be there too--for his 354th consecutive appearance at a Pacifica football game.

"Like the sun is going to rise," says school Principal John Johnson, "he is going to be out there every game, cheering Pacifica on."

Freeman almost died when he was in the third grade. First came the mumps and a high fever, then meningitis.

He learned to read, but the resulting brain damage severely blunted his skills in areas such as math and cognitive thinking. He also suffered from chronic lower back pain.

His classmates in high school sensed and fed off his weaknesses. He was pelted with everything from corn nuts to nails and screws.

Freeman recalls a classmate telling him to "shut up and sit down" when he got up to ask a teacher for help with a problem. Seeking a reprieve, Freeman turned to the teacher only to be told, "Yeah, shut up and sit down."

"Many times I wanted to quit school," he said. "But I didn't want to let them push me around."

In 1967, Freeman's father took him to a Pacifica football game and asked the equipment manager if his son could help out. The manager said sure, so Freeman sat with the players on the bench and distributed water during timeouts.

There weren't any water bottles back then, so players drank from a ladle Freeman dipped into a pail.

Freeman was surprised and delighted to find that the players, even the cool ones, didn't mind chatting with him.

"It was one of the highlights of his high school time," said Jim Perry, who attended Pacifica with Freeman. "It gave him a chance to feel a part of some things that he couldn't be a part of as an athlete. . . . There was a part of him that came out [at the games] that you didn't see in school."

*

After his graduation two years later, Freeman went from water boy to unofficial mascot, flailing his arms through the air to spell P-A-C-I-F-I-C-A while fans followed his lead at Bolsa Grande High, where Pacifica plays its home games. He had found his place.

"I wanted to do something that I could never do when I was there," Freeman said.

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