Pioneer senior Colin Dougherty builds life around basketball, family, community

The eyes never stop moving.

Back and forth the deep, dark globes follow the basketball like a dog begging for table scraps – fixed, focused and fervently.

Even from the sideline, Colin Dougherty's gaze is piercing inside the Leavenworth High School gymnasium. Yet, get closer and one can see the softness and warmth inside.

They are not too different from a set not too far away.

In a distant corner of the gym, perhaps 90 feet, father Mike Dougherty stands stout observing the game with the same speed, pace and passion.

Decked in Leavenworth blue, the security guard tightens his vice grip on a walkie-talkie as he watches the Pioneer varsity boys' basketball team host Olathe North.

His voice can be heard from time to time, barking encouragement, and he moves side-to-side ever so often. However, like his son, his eyes rarely leave the court.

That is until a whistle blows. The high-pitch shriek brings in a fresh group of subs, including Colin. The 5-foot-9-inch senior rises from a knee at the scorer's table and races to take his place in front of an opposing player.

And instantly, everything changes.

For the father and son, this moment of basketball is the accumulation of so much hard work. From countless shooting sessions, to numerous doctor appointments, to the tearful moments of frustration, anger and happiness, this is what the past 18 years were all about.

A chance to look through the window and see what life can hold.

And so, the eyes never stop.

* * * * *

Mike found out at an early age that Colin had autism, a disorder that affects the brain's normal development of social and communication skills.

The condition usually appears in the first three years of life.

"He didn't start talking until 4 or 5 years old," the father of two said. "All he could do was point or make noises. We would be at Wal-Mart and all he could do was say ah-ha or tear up things.

"We always prayed, 'Lord, please let this child talk,' but now we can't get him to shut up."

However, before Colin could learn the gift of gab, his early years held plenty of discontent. About as much as one can expect when being unable to communicate.

In addition to that frustration, his parents soon split, leaving Mike as the primary caretaker for the boy and his older brother Tony. Thus, an already upside-down world was sent spinning in a whole other direction.

"It was a lot of hard work and not every moment was great, but love got us through," Mike said. "I get that from my mom and dad, brothers and sisters, my sons. All the people that are close, friends and relatives, helped us get through by love."

Get through they did – but barely.

Mike, who already worked for the Leavenworth Water Works Department, took a second job at the high school as a security guard. His parents increased their already active role in raising his sons.

"It was not an easy job," said Ellen Dougherty, Colin's grandmother, "especially when Colin went through his behavioral problem phases. I had to remove everything from my living room until he learned how to live with them.

"Eventually, he learned not to throw the crystal ware or break the candle sticks and I was able to put them back out."

During the evenings, his grandpa often watched the boys shoot on the family's basketball hoop. Sometimes their uncle Neil, who was an assistant basketball coach at the University of Kansas, stopped by as well.

The sessions were sacred, and marked the beginning of the youngsters' tutelage in the sport.

"Sometimes I would play in games with others, sometimes just shoot by myself," Colin said. "I love basketball so much. That's all I wanted to do."

While his grandparents watched the boys, Mike worked throughout the morning, day and evening. At the stroke of midnight, his shift at the high school ended. He then picked up his sons and had them in their own beds by 12:30 a.m.

Six hours later, the family did it all over again.

"It was a rat race," the dad said," I can honestly say if it wasn't for my mom and dad, we would've never made it."

* * * * *

As the years increased, so did Colin's family.

Beginning at Lawson Elementary, the youngest Dougherty went through the trials and tribulations every child faces, expect with the added stress of a learning disorder.

"From Lawson (Elementary) to the co-op at Lansing to Warren Middle School and then the high school, we've had a lot of help," grandma Dougherty said. "Just wonderful people who went through the biting, scratching and yelling while still providing a professional education, spirit and love for this child.

"We are so appreciative of them."

The people who helped mold this young man are so numerous that this space can't accurately pay them all tribute. It truly was the community, as a whole, that provided support and so much more – though it did take time.

Growing up, Colin had to attend special needs classes in trailers outside of the school. According to his grandma, the boy despised being away from the regular students.

Through hard work, including extra time with his teachers and aides, the boy learned to control his emotions and to communicate effectively. Soon after, he was integrated back into regular classrooms.

"One thing about Colin is that he is loved by his family and extended family, all those who worked with him, very much," Ellen said. "It really does take a village to raise a child."

The lessons continued outside of the classroom.

While playing little league baseball, Colin often ran the wrong way. So, before every at-bat, Mike ran to first base.

With each hit, the son would race after his father. The dad then moved to second, repeating the process all the way around the bases.

"We had to learn that way," Mike said. "With everything, I tried to explain the best I could with my hands or motions or whatever it took."

Colin, as did his brother, played in an assortment of sports growing up, from baseball to football to marital arts.

In each one, lessons were learned. During a youth football game, Colin was blindsided during a play, sending Mike running onto the field.

"They waved me onto the field and I said 'Colin, you alright?' I hear him off to the side, 'Dad, I'm over here.' His helmet had been hit around his head and the mask was on backwards."

"I get to him and he said, "I'm done with this dad.'"

From then on, Colin concentrated solely on basketball. It was and had always been his true love. It gave him happiness, ambition and determination.

Unfortunately, it also brought pain and heartbreak.

* * * * *

By the time he entered high school, Colin had fully emerged himself into the game of basketball.

Posters of the game's greats – mainly Michael Jordan – adorned his walls from ceiling to floor. He watched tapes upon tapes of NBA and college games from the 80s, 90s and present, including even the most recent KU games.

"When I watch the tapes, I just sit on the couch and watch the players move and play," Colin said. "I watch tapes all the time."

The teenager became a basketball savant and it boiled over into his everyday life.

"Freshman year I was a little chubby and I got skinnier by my sophomore year," Colin said. "I just worked hard every day, every summer. All summer long I would work on my shooting, defense, handles, rebounding – everything."

The effort did not go unnoticed.

"He has a great work ethic," LV head basketball coach Larry Hogan said. "He brings it everyday and gives a 100 percent on the floor. He has just been a pleasure to work with."

There were problems though. Because of his autism, learning the different schemes was harder for him than for others. It caused aggravation and anger.

Nevertheless, like everything else, the father and son found a way to adapt.

"If he didn't understand a play at practice, we would go home and get out nickels and quarters to figure out where everyone should be at every moment," Mike said.

"He had learned to listen. To me, to coach Hogan, to uncle Neil, to all his coaches. We're there some hard times, yeah sure, but they were worth it."

His game improved, so much that Colin was playing JV by his junior year. Yet another obstacle arose – seizures.

The doctors believe the sudden convulsion attacks were, and still are, brought on by added stress. Colin sporadically suffered through them his entire junior campaign, whether he was at practice, school or home.

"I usually sit shaking and have a hard time breathing," the teenager said. "I get real tired. I try to calm myself, breathe and then get back to playing."

"It's like a full body workout," his father explains. "He starts getting gray and I can just tell by his actions that something is wrong, They've done tests, brain scans and no one knows for sure why they come. They say maybe because of stress, so we try to make things simple.

"They've slowed down since last year. He is a fighter."

Unfortunately, that wasn't the hardest obstacle for Colin during his junior year.

On July 5, 2011, his uncle and mentor Neil Dougherty passed away after collapsing during a jog in Washington D.C.

He was 50 years old.

"Everything happened so close and a not a day goes by that we don't think about him," Mike said. "Colin took it hard…whenever he saw Neil he knew that he was going to get some kind of quote. He always said be good… just be good."

It was by far the hardest thing Colin ever experienced.

"Uncle Neil told me to just keep playing hard, no matter if you win or lose," he said. "Play with your heart. You have to have heart to play basketball.

"He always said that – just play with your heart."

* * * * *

Time is running thin.

Colin sits with his father and another gentleman in a small, gray-painted room just outside the Leavenworth High School gym.

The youngsters' gaze causally scans the floor as a few small moments of silence fill the room.

Then, as begins to speak, his eyes dart back up.

"I had to get a lot more aggressive," he said. "Look for the ball and catch and shoot. If not that, then dribble and drive or pass the ball to whoever is open."

Techniques, tips and basketball advice rattled from the 18-year-old like a teacher reading off an attendance sheet. His voice finally crescendos at the end, before it slightly fades.

"And always look through the window to see where your next move will be."

The lessons he has learned, whether on or off the court, are too many to count. From the child who couldn't speak, to the youngster who couldn't control his actions or emotions.

From the teenager who tried to find his niche in life, to the young man who suffered through both physical and emotional pain to keep that niche.

Through it all, Colin Dougherty never stopped working, and it has paid off. The Pioneer started the team's first varsity game this season, where he scored 14 points.

Just last week, the Kansas City Sports Commission named him Kansas City's Sportsman of the Year.

"He is not the most gifted kid, or the most athletic, but what he has to offer is that he will work so hard," Mike said. "There is not a day that goes by he isn't working towards something, and usually it's basketball."

And with that, it's time to get back to work.

The clock nears 7 p.m. and practice starts soon. So both Doughertys rise to leave.

The first and youngest shakes the man's hand and zips out the door. Down towards the locker room he trots. The other lingers longer, and like he has down for nearly 20 years, the father watches his son go.

He is looking through the window, and he sees what life can hold.