Every year, on Jan. 8, junior Dan Walker carefully hand makes a birthday card for fellow junior Jack Anderson. He begins each one the same way.
To my very best friend…
Jack keeps each letter on his bulletin board in his room. Varying levels of scrawling script cover the bright pieces of paper — 12 cards to commemorate 12 years as best friends.
This is the story of a friendship that is both unlikely and typical.
Jack is a varsity linebacker. Dan has Down’s Syndrome.
Yet kindergarten recess turned these two boys into close friends. And close friends became brothers. And somehow, a shared sense of humor and dedication to supporting each other made a disability unimportant.
This is the story of Jack and Dan.
* * *
When they met in kindergarten, Jack and Dan walked to Brookwood Elementary every morning with arms slung around each other’s shoulders, steps matching each other in length and speed.
Even when Jack grew to be five inches taller than Dan by the end of elementary school, they still posed for pictures with arms around each other, despite the awkward height difference.
In kindergarten, Jack tied Dan’s shoes and cut up his school lunches in the cafeteria for him. He didn’t quite understand Dan’s disability, but he understood that Dan was his best friend. If he needed help with something, it was Jack’s job to provide that. That’s what best friends did.
Dan’s growth slowed, and he could no longer keep up with the baseball, basketball and soccer teams that he had played on since kindergarten. But when Dan joined a Challenger’s team for kids with disabilities, Jack joined with him, acting as Dan’s “buddy” by helping him round bases and make baskets.
That was Jack’s place. Dan often forgot to bring home his gym clothes on the weekend, so Jack took them home and washed them himself. He was there for 12 consecutive birthday dinners. When middle school bullies attempted to antagonize Dan, Jack was the first to defend him.
“I’m not his mentor, really, or even like a big brother figure,” Jack said. “We’re equal and we’re friends — extremely close friends. We’re always there for each other.”
* * *
Jack was shaken awake at 2 a.m. by his mom, Michelle Anderson, on a cold November night at the end of eighth grade. Groggy and half-asleep, it took him several moments to understand her frenzied words.
The Walkers’ Westwood house had burned down. Only the garage was left standing. Dan’s home, his cat, dog and tortoise, his sense of security — everything that he had was consumed in the blaze.
Jack didn’t speak when he first saw Dan. He couldn’t find the right words. Instead, he handed him a slate gray Northface, children’s extra large — one size too small for Jack, a perfect fit for Dan.
Three years later, it’s still the only coat Dan will use in the winter.
“Jack and I like to be there for each other,” Dan said. “After [the fire] he would just come and pick me up and we would play football. We didn’t talk about it. We were just guys for each other.”
What Dan needed the most in the chaos of losing his home was Jack. He needed someone to play football with on Tuesday nights and to joke around with after school.
It took time, but Jack was patient. He learned to focus on little moments spent laughing at lunch, moments when Dan’s face split open with a smile and he seemed to forget.
Even when Dan didn’t want to talk, Jack pretended that everything was normal. And eventually, it was.
* * *
The next three years were filled with change. Dan moved away from Jack, into a new neighborhood. They entered high school together, where Jack found a place among the varsity football and wrestling teams.
Sports and classes kept the boys apart, but little moments continued to bring them together.
The summer before junior year was a laidback summer for Dan and Jack; a summer without fire, without fear.
Jack would throw a rod in the back of his car and take Dan fishing in the pond behind Tomahawk Creek. Dan loved it.
He baited his line and waited patiently until, finally, the lake exploded in a flurry of ripples. A fish flailed at the end of his rod. Jack laughed as Dan excitedly reeled in the small fish, proud of his four-inch catch.
There was one problem. Dan refused to hold it. No matter what, he wouldn’t touch the flopping fish.
Like always, the boys compromised. Jack held the fish and leaned into Dan, whose eyes were squeezed shut in a wide smile as they posed for a picture. Then they lowered the catch back into the lake and let it swim away.
With another line trailing in the water, Jack was comfortable. Dan was always there for him; managing his teams, cheering at his wrestling tournaments, helping to blow out the candles on his birthday cake.
Dan was the person Jack wanted beside him.
* * *
Three months later, Jack and Dan sat together as the bus rumbled back to East after the hail-mary victory over Olathe Northwest. The team was chanting Dan’s name, over and over, as they celebrated their third win of the year.
“Dan — the — man. Dan — the — man.”
Junior year was Jack and Dan’s first season on the varsity football team — Jack as a linebacker, Dan as a manager. This was Jack’s home. His team was a collection of his closest friends, and naturally he wanted Dan on the sidelines with him.
“Dan keeps everything real for the players,” Michelle said. “Sometimes they’ll be really edgy and nervous for a big game, and they’ll look over and Dan will have gotten a chili dog and have it all over his face and just be grinning. He makes them laugh, and that’s most important.”
Dan’s presence became a necessity to Jack and his teammates. He had to be there at practices and games. Jack felt nervous and uncomfortable on the field without knowing he could glance to the sidelines for an encouraging grin from his best friend. Knowing this, Dan made sure to be on the field for every practice and game.
On Thanksgiving Day, Michelle dropped by football practice at East and noticed Dan’s younger sister, Abby, in the stands.
“Of course he’s here,” Abby said, watching her brother as he high fived a player on the sidelines. “Where else would he be?”
* * *
This is a story about small moments.
A story of 12 years spent fishing. Of 12 years spent trick-or-treating and playing basketball and laughing when Dan’s dog ate his pizza.
“I think, when it comes to Dan, you can’t pick out favorite moments, because it’s all in the little things,” Jack’s dad David Anderson said. “They have been such constants in each others’ lives, and it is such a natural friendship. It’s hard to pin down a favorite moment because there are so many of them.”
There are all the times Jack took Dan out to dinner after football games. Boy Scouts in elementary school and Challenger’s tournaments in middle school. The time that Jack rearranged his schedule to have fourth hour weights with Dan, and the days they spent working together at McGonigle’s Meat Market.
And that is what Dan has taught Jack. That little moments are what hold the fabric of his friendship with Dan together. That little moments are what matter.
Dan has taught him how to live with joy. How to find meaning in every day and to be grateful for what he is given. He has taught him to dance at football practice and laugh at bad knock knock jokes. Dan has given Jack birthday cards and unrelenting support and pride in having a best friend whom he knows he will never lose.
“Dan is just always smiling, he’s always laughing,” Jack said. “He’s taught me to want to be more like him. He lives every day with so much happiness and so much life. I think that’s what’s special about Dan.”