Colin Dougherty scored 16 points in his first varsity start in Leavenworth’s season opener.
By TOD PALMER
The Kansas City Star
While that may not sound overly impressive, Dougherty’s family considers it a miracle given that the Pioneers’ senior is autistic.
“As a baby, we never would have expected him to be in this position,” his father, Mike Dougherty, said. “Starting for the high school team? Not a chance.”
But through unyielding support from his family and his own determination, Colin averaged 6.0 points and shot a team-best 53 percent from two-point range early in the season.
Now, he has started half of Leavenworth’s 12 games — something Pioneers coach Larry Hogan never would have predicted after meeting Colin as a fourth-grader
“The first time I saw him, I would have said, ‘There’s no way,’ ” Hogan said. “He was just off the wall. He tried to come to my basketball camp, but he was so unfocused. You’d look at him and think, ‘There’s no way this kid’s going to be a basketball player.’ ”
As a toddler, the Doughertys didn’t worry about Colin playing basketball. They wondered if he’d ever walk or talk.
“Between 1 and 3, he was very lethargic,” Colin’s grandmother, Ellen Dougherty, said. “You’d look into his eyes and I would think, ‘Dear Lord, is there a child behind these eyes?’ ”
Colin, who was diagnosed at age 2, barely uttered a word.
By the time he reached school, communication remained a struggle, but Colin had morphed into an uncontrollable mass of energy — a tiny tornado ripping through Ellen’s living room or the office of physician Deborah Heidgen, who tried to help the Doughertys understand and manage Colin’s condition.
“It’s been a process of learning and love and making him feel good about himself,” Ellen said. “It’s also taken a lot of discipline. If he did something bad as a little boy, I’d say, ‘Grandma loves you too much to let you be bad’ and he learned to understand that.”
Through devotion and patience, Colin’s family began drawing him from his shell.
He spent time in the Lansing school district’s special education program through a cooperative agreement, but Colin was determined to return to a traditional school setting.
“He fought so hard to get from that trailer where he had special education to the regular classroom,” Ellen said. “He loved school and has always loved school.”
By the end of middle school, Colin succeeded and he’s now a straight-A student in a typical classroom setting, according to Mike.
That will also serves him well in basketball, which is fitting given that the Doughertys are probably the first family of basketball in Leavenworth.
Ellen and her husband, Lonnie, a retired brigadier general with the Kansas Army National Guard, had six children who all played college basketball, including Colin’s uncle, the late Neil Dougherty.
Neil played for Mike Krzyzewski and was an assistant to Roy Williams at Kansas before taking over the TCU men’s program, where he guided the Horned Frogs to the NIT quarterfinals in 2005.
“When he started playing, Neil told Colin, ‘When you’re on that court, play hard and play hard with your heart,’ ” Mike said. “That’s what he always tries to do.”
It’s the main reason he’s cracked the lineup for Leavenworth’s basketball squad.
“He’s tenacious on defense and loves the game,” Hogan said. “He plays very, very hard all the time and he’s a very good shooter. He guards a lot of people for us, because he just gets out and gets after it. He’s never lacking for effort and intensity. That makes it pretty easy to work with him.”
It’s been difficult at times.
Colin, who wants to attend college after graduation and even hopes to land a basketball scholarship, needed special accommodations to play Little League as a child.
“I had it arranged with the coach, so when Colin would get up to bat I’d be halfway down the first-base line,” Ellen said. “I’d say, ‘Run this way, Colin. Run to me.’ Then I’d back up behind first base and tell him to stay there. Second base, same thing all the way around.”
When Colin wanted to focus on basketball, he again needed extra attention.
“He doesn’t always pick things up as quick as the other kids, but I will go home and teach him — whether it’s a play or a defense,” Mike said.
Hogan lets Mike watch the practices then he goes home and works with Colin to better understand the Pioneers’ concepts.
Using coins to represent players at the kitchen table every night, Mike helped Colin understand where he needed to be on certain plays.
“There were times it was hard and he’d get frustrated, because things didn’t come easy to him, but he never gave up,” his older brother, Tony, said. “It’s crazy how proud I am of him for how much he’s overcome and how much he’s grown. I truly believe that if it’s something he really wants to do, I feel like he can put his mind to it and do anything.”
To reach Tod Palmer, call 816-234-4389 or send email to email@example.com.