Sean Druffel can recite scores like a walking sports page. He would watch games from six in the morning until 10 at night, if he could. He has been a part of dozens and dozens of teams. Football, baseball, basketball, soccer.
But he’s not the athlete you may imagine.
Druffel has fragile X syndrome, a genetic condition that causes a range of developmental problems, including learning disabilities and cognitive impairment. When he was young, doctors didn’t know what would become of him. They suggested that someday he may be institutionalized.
Today, that thought seems unreal. Outgoing and confident, the 24-year-old Druffel has a great sense of humor and an athletic passion he wears on his sleeve. He has overcome so many of the syndrome’s characteristic setbacks. The transformation, say those who know him best, can be traced to a high school football coach and an unique friendship that has changed many for the better.
Connecting over sports
Druffel stands near center court, focusing his brown eyes on the hoop as the Father Ryan girls basketball team warms up before a game.
Next to him, assistant coach John Sneed does the same.
The two make quite a pair. Dressed in similar striped polo shirts with the school crest emblazoned just below the collar. Their arms folded across their chest. They spend a lot of time together on game days watching the action, hollering play calls, grimacing when the whistle doesn’t blow in their team’s favor.
“We don’t always like the officials’ calls, do we Sean?” Sneed says, the corner of his eyes wrinkling in a smile.
Their friendship began more than a decade ago.
Sneed coached and taught at rival catholic high school Pope John Paul II in Hendersonville at the time, and Druffel just transferred to the school as a freshman. He struggled with the transition, with the higher expectations and new environment.
But on a retreat early in the school year, Sneed noticed Druffel. He didn’t talk much, he was shy and not very social, but the two immediately connected over sports. When it comes to that “he’s 24-7, non-stop,” Sneed says. The coach knew he had a place for that kind of passion.
Thom Druffel still remembers the day his phone rang with Sneed on the other end of the line. “We would like to invest in this kid and have him start helping us,” the coach said.
Of course, his father said yes. In elementary and middle school, Druffel had been isolated. With no one to take him under their wing, he had no sense of friendship.
“He grew up with no one understanding him,” Thom Druffel says.
With Sneed at his side, that changed. Druffel became the manager on the football team, and kids started getting to know him, first the athletes and then others. During the school days Sneed made a point to see him and say hi. And with that, Druffel began to overcome some of the sensitivities that are so extreme in his diagnosis.
Those with Fragile X are often highly sensitive to noise. In his younger days, when Druffel went to a sporting event or concert with his family, he would hold his ears and get upset. Now, he was on the sidelines waving his arms and shouting, “Let’s go.”
The doctors — those who once expressed little confidence of what Druffel could do — were surprised. “How did you get this guy like this?” Thom Druffel remembers the doctor saying during one visit. He didn’t usually see Fragile X kids as social and confident as Druffel had become.
“He is really unique in that world,” Thom Druffel says.
Switching to Father Ryan
After high school, it all could have stopped. Sneed had no obligation to keep Druffel under his wing. But the mentorship had become a bond, and when Sneed moved to Father Ryan as assistant athletic director and assistant basketball coach in 2009, their friendship followed.
The two played tennis, went bowling and kayaking. They even recently went fishing. Druffel kept casting his line into the water, pulling it out again saying, “I got nothing.” Sneed teased Druffel about his lack of patience, and then, just when they were about to call it quits, Druffel thought his pole got stuck in the water. Instead, he reeled in a bass as long as his arm. Sneed still has a photo of the fish and his friend on his phone.
Sneed also brought Druffel to every Father Ryan football game, and Druffel soon began wearing the Irish purple with his own Father Ryan football helmet.
He learned all of the team’s plays and would eat pre-game meals with the team, showing off his sports prowess by giving the score of just about any game they could think of.
“He got so popular,” says Father Ryan senior B.J. Bishop, a football and basketball player. “We just always knew, no matter what, Sean was going to be there. He always brought up the emotion of the team.”
Not just on the football field.
Energy and happiness
As the Father Ryan girls basketball team floods out of the locker room and onto the court, Druffel extends his hand to give every player a high five as they run past.
Druffel’s job, as he puts it, is to “help win games.”
“I love it,” he says.
During the games, Druffel cups his left hand around his mouth like a megaphone and shouts across the basketball court. He throws his hands up in frustration when he thinks there’s been a bad call and he raises them, pumping them over his head when the girls win.
“He’s the life of this team,” senior Maggie Rider says.
He makes every game he can, only missing contests when it conflicts with his work schedule at Vanderbilt’s McGugin Center, which houses the university’s athletic department and where he works four days a week in the kitchen serving athletes.
On Fridays, when he doesn’t have to work, he has lunch with the Father Ryan basketball team. He draws up plays for them and offers strategy on how to shoot and block out. And he jokes with them, often telling the players they are trouble “with a capital T.”
“He has an energy and a happiness,” senior Olivia Rolick says. “You can’t see him and not smile.”
Near the end of last season, the girls gathered around Druffel — just as he had done for them all year — and snapped a photo. After the final game, they gave him a framed picture and some candy.
He is more than just a fan. He holds a place of prestige. He is welcomed, like the coaches, into the locker room after a game. This season has been better than most. The team is undefeated.
On a recent Friday night, after Sneed praised the team for another victory, Druffel was given the floor. From underneath the brim of his white Father Ryan cap, he focused his eyes on the team and followed his mentor’s example.
“Good win, guys,” he says. “Good win, guys.
Reach Jessica Bliss at 615-259-8253 and on Twitter @jlbliss.