Using it like a mantra, USC punter Kyle Negrete is fond of saying, “Don’t doubt the down and out.”
He lives it too.
Before transferring here from the University of San Diego (USD), Negrete was inspired by a painting of San Diego Chargers fullback Lorenzo Neal, who played for Negrete’s grandfather Jim Sweeney at California State University, Fresno. The artist was Joel Anderson, an autistic teenager with severe obsessive compulsive disorder.
“After I heard his story, I was so engaged in what he was doing,” Negrete said after first meeting Anderson, who is now 20.
The USD football player backed up his words and rallied his coaches and teammates to create “Best Buddies,” a mentoring program for student-athletes to befriend people with autism. Within a year, Negrete had motivated 85 student-athletes to volunteer, and together they worked with the Autism Tree Foundation to plan events and build relationships.
Meanwhile, Negrete and Anderson were on their way to what has become an unshakeable bond.
“He’s one of my best friends,” Negrete said. “The brotherhood and compassion we have for one another and just seeing him grow has been one of the most humbling experiences for me.”
The feeling is mutual. Anderson’s mother Sandi views Negrete as a member of the family.
“He has such a special heart,” she said.
As an example, she called Negrete after only a few visits to let him know that she and her son were in Negrete’s neighborhood. Negrete dropped what he was doing, promptly went to meet them and hung out with Anderson by himself for the afternoon, while Sandi went to a meeting. She was so overcome by the unselfish gesture that she remembers crying throughout the entire meeting.
“It was unusual for Joel to have a peer respect him for who he was and for someone to choose to spend time with him,” she said.
“I have always grown up with that kind of mentality,” Negrete explained. “[People with disabilities] are just like you and me. They have such a sincere love and passion for life that all of us need, but we lose in the distractions of life.”
Negrete applies that perspective to his entire life – from academics (he’s a business major) to community service (he accompanied quarterback Matt Barkley on his recent trip to Nigeria) and athletics. The redshirt junior won the starting job as punter following a strong fall camp.
While Negrete expresses himself on the football field, Anderson continues to explore his creative side by taking junior college classes online in art and animation. He even has his own website (JoelsVisionArts.com).
“Most kids with a disability like that have their niche, something they excel at,” Negrete said. “Art is his way.”
When Negrete transferred to USC, Anderson was worried that they would lose touch. “We are brothers. We are forever,” Negrete reassured him.
They talk three or four times a week or often meet at Disneyland for a day of fun. Meanwhile, Anderson now is comfortable enough to sleep over at Negrete’s house – a tremendous achievement for someone with severe OCD.
Anderson’s family watches all USC games at home. He’s learning football and hopefully will watch Negrete play from inside the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum for the first time this season.
Sandi Anderson summed it up: “They started as mentors, became friends and now they are brothers.”