I’m going to do something a little different on the blog today.
Today’s post is not about my family, nor is it be about hockey. That’s because I read something yesterday that I still can’t get it out of my head.
The story is “The Ballad of the Piggyback Bandit” and it appeared Wednesday on Bill Simmons’ amazing site for long-form (mostly) sports essays, Grantland.com.
If you haven’t read it, I urge you to do so. It’s long, but worth it. Even if you haven’t, I’ll do my best to summarize here.
On the surface it seemed like another of those odd stories, vaguely connected to sports, that become fodder for the commenters at Deadspin. That’s not a judgmental statement: I read those items too. From the Auburn tree poisoner to the woman who watched NASCAR races with her dead husband for a year.
Sherwin Shayegan, the “Piggyback Bandit,” was banned from attending high school sporting events in five states. His crime? Jumping on the backs of unsuspecting athletes and asking for piggyback rides.
Sherwin is described as creepy, weird and a fetishist. But I don’t believe Sherwin is a predator.
He has Asperger’s.
And I recognize a lot in Sherwin.
And that scares the hell out of me.
It’s not that I fear Ryan will end up like Sherwin, though when I allow myself to think too far ahead the future beyond high school can look like a very scary place. It’s that much of Sherwin’s odd behavior make such obvious sense to me given his diagnosis, and yet I don’t sense the public sees it that way.
Awareness has a long way to go.
Let’s start with the reason Sherwin got involved in sports in the first place. From the article:
But what Sherwin really loved was managing the football team. “It helped him get into the social norm,” Schott explains. It made a kid with Asperger’s feel he belonged.
The article makes it sound like the team accepted him, one of the few heartwarming moments in the entire tale. He would exchange high-fives and yes, piggyback rides with team members, and nobody thought it odd.
So what happened to Sherwin? How did he go from innocent, if awkward, high school team manager, to someone who would later be described as “the bane of high school sports” and become message-board fodder?
First, the wall of 18 hit.
Sherwin graduated from high school, but was “too disabled to get through college (he lasted less than a year at a local community college) and too high-functioning to live in a group home.”
Employment was a challenge. Sherwin worked at a clothing store in high school. His boss describes having left Sherwin alone in a stockroom, only to return to find “dozens of pairs of shoes had been taken out of their boxes and re-laced.”
“If no one told him to stop vacuuming, he would vacuum for eight hours,” the boss said.
The football coach at another high school took Sherwin on as team manager out of sympathy.
Worse, his support system crumbled. His parents divorced. A brother moved away. With no high school structure to lean on, Sherwin used his disability checks to travel the country.
A family friend described Sherwin this way;
I can’t put my finger on it. Whether it’s autism or there’s something lacking in terms of his emotional development. But he’s stuck in a time warp in terms of being an adolescent and wanting to be accepted and be part of something.
Can’t put his finger on it? Really?
I’d say the family friend put his finger on it quite well. Of course Sherwin is stuck. He’s trying to stay in high school, a time when he had support and structure and was accepted and the world made sense. Remove all that, and he was lost.
The tragedy of it is that it sounds like the people closest to Sherwin understood him quite well, yet they couldn’t see the forest for the trees.
A high school athletics official who would later deal with Sherwin’s trespassing at events: “He doesn’t protract any conversation.”
Another person who ran across Sherwin at many events: “No girlfriend. No wife. Not even a buddy. Just a total loner. I was telling my wife, ‘This just ain’t right.’ He just didn’t seem right.”
From a police report, after Sherwin is arrested for jumping on the back of a football player he had tricked into an interview: “He stated he just wants to be friends with the athletes.”
These people saw Sherwin’s issues, but they couldn’t see Sherwin.
Some police detectives who investigated are convinced Sherwin’s actions are sexually motivated.
I don’t know what other issues or mental illnesses Sherwin might have. But his crimes sure don’t sound like those of a predator to me.
After one arrest, Sherwin quizzed the city attorney about his potential jail time. The attorney eventually figured out that Sherwin was trying to plan his schedule. Some may see this as a sign of the depth of a mental illness, an obsession with continuing his inappropriate pursuit of athletes in spite of the consequences. I just see a young man who can only see the world in black and white, who survives by imposing order on a chaotic world the only way he knows how: by sticking to a rigid schedule.
Sherwin is what happens when a child that can only navigate the world with a tight-knit support structure sees the pillars of that support crumble (to borrow a phrase from the article). Sherwin is what happens when you remove that support, along with the ready-made opportunities to fit in socially and belong to something and replace it with … nothing.
The results are extreme in his case, but they are still predictable. Post high school, Sherwin quite possibly descended into depression, perhaps mental illness. Combine all that with the singular focus that is a (sometimes beneficial) aspect of Asperger’s and you get the Sherwin described in the article. Only he’s not Sherwin anymore.
He’s the “Piggyback Bandit.”
I’d love to tell you there’s a happy ending to the piece, but there isn’t. Sherwin is traveling again, and those that care about him are waiting for his next indiscretion.
I posted a link to this article on the Pucks and Puzzle Pieces Facebook page yesterday with the message that it “broke my heart.”
We need to do better by our children, yes. But we need to do MUCH better by our young adults. We can’t remove every ounce of the support that has allowed them to survive, even thrive, and expect anything less than disaster. The lesson of Sherwin is not some creep to mock in the comments on Deadspin.
The lesson of Sherwin is that he is a cautionary tale.