Behind the mask of Chandler High School’s mascot, Scruffy, Andrew Sanchez found his “voice.”
The quiet, autistic student spent much of his high school career with his head down, not socializing with classmates, a common characteristic in autistic youth. But with encouragement from his mom, Andrew, 19, tried out to play the role of the school’s sports-loving, team-encouraging wolf this year.
- 2013 Best of East Valley: Read up on all 71 winners, online now!
He not only won a chance to put on the school’s costume, he won the hearts of the school. During the East Valley Tribune’s “2013 Best of East Valley” voting — where readers pick their favorites in more than 70 categories across the region — many votes came in not necessarily for “Scruffy,” per se.
While most votes for this particular category came in for the mascot itself, what was notable about the votes in Andrew’s case is that the vast majority pegged him by name. The young man behind the mask won the title, going away.
“We tease him that he and Scruffy have become one person. For an autistic person, socializing is the hardest thing. … now, he’s completely out of his shell. He does best with his mask on. He can be someone else and no one knows even outside the suit,” said his mom, Traci King, a teacher at Chandler High. “They asked him to open outside his scope of things. I’m so impressed. You wouldn’t get me out in front of crowds.”
It took a little convincing to get Andrew to tryout at first, she said.
“I wanted him to try something to get involved this last year. His dream job is to be a Disney character at the park. I said, ‘This would be good training,’” King said.
But after the auditions, the cheer team sponsor, Brianna Barcelo, went to King and told her that Andrew was selected as the school’s No. 1 Scruffy for the year. Two students are used during the fall football season because the weight of the costume doesn’t mix well with Arizona’s temperatures.
“When it came to tryouts, he had the whole routine put together. He was in character from the minute he was in the costume,” Barcelo said. “Andrew is at every basketball game, football game, even Yuma. He’s shown up at soccer and baseball. We’ve never had a mascot that involved.”
Andrew perfected the role so much that during a national cheerleading competition this spring in California, he was given a chance at the “best mascot” title. Even a shot at the title means beating dozens of other students nationwide, Barcelo said.
With the cheer team, Andrew’s entire family — grandparents included — loaded up the car for the drive to Anaheim.
Andrew won fourth place.
So impressed were the Disneyland folks upon hearing his story, that Andrew and his family were given "VIP treatment", including a session with many of the characters.
“They told me about the internship program there,” King said, speaking of the summer employment program available to young adults. When Kine expressed some doubts, the staff assured her, “He’d do fine.”
“I just know I’m moving to California in a few years,” King said of helping her son make his dreams come true.
Andrew is one of King’s three autistic children who have gone through Chandler High School.
“They’re so big on unified sports and integrating them with typical peers. That he really has friends, real friends, it touches me. You don’t see that everywhere,” King said.
Several cheerleaders agree.
“He’s really shy at first, but once you get to know him, he’s energetic. He’s really sweet,” said cheerleader Kayla Brown, 16. “Andrew always brings energy to the games. He’s always dancing for us. … he’s a great personality.”
Andrew surprised Barcelo one day when he walked into practice, put his arms around some of the girls and said, “Hello, ladies!”
“He was shy and really didn’t talk. Now that he’s the mascot, he loves the girls,” King said. “Now, he’ll walk in and act like he’s Mr. Suave.”
It didn’t take much to get Andrew back into character when he posed for Tribune photos for the “Best of 2013” edition. Still shy to speak, he did sum up his experience as Scruffy well.
“I’m hanging it up, but I’m going to miss him so much,” he said.
Contact writer: (480) 898-6549 or firstname.lastname@example.org