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Smart, full of life (and disabled); I'm so proud of my daughter

She takes four buses to belong. Two there, two back, changing in downtown Cincinnati amid a whirl of strangers, and buildings so tall, she can't see where they stop (she's 4-foot-6 in her best Nikes). He's on the other end of the line, waiting for her. They give each other something.

She gives him a sense of what's possible in a world without guile or agendas or booing. He gives her a job. From her, he gets no-strings support, in a profession where nothing is without strings. From him, she gets a load of empty water bottles and a stack of dirty towels. And the precious notion that she matters.

Dave Bezold is the basketball coach at Northern Kentucky University, a Division II school just outside Cincinnati. Jillian Daugherty is an NKU sophomore, who helps manage his team. "Coach Beez,'' she calls him. How they got together is whimsy, dressed in best intentions. What they mean to each other isn't whimsical at all.

Jillian has Down syndrome. She also happens to be my daughter. Bezold has coached NKU for seven seasons. He's one of those coaches who tosses words like "perspective'' and "education'' and "real life'' around like chest passes in a three-man weave. Unlike some coaches, he's comfortable with their sincerity.

"Our guys would be very upset if she weren't around,'' Bezold says of Jillian. "I mean, we have a few players who were uncomfortable. They hadn't been exposed to different types of people. It was their own fear. After a couple weeks, they realized Jillian was just another human being.''

What if you could live your life with a child's heart and wonderment for all things? Would you be better for it? Would that be OK?

"Bubbly, every day,'' is Bezold's description of his newest manager. "Smiling and so excited just to be here. I mean, just to be here. Always thanking you, for the littlest things. She has this the-world-is-a-great-place mentality. It grounds us.''

Jillian has a good deal, too. She gains responsibility, she learns self-reliance. She's confident. Oh, yeah, she also gets into the games for free, and cops all the free workout gear. Not many days pass without Jillian wearing something gold and/or black, stenciled with the words "Northern Kentucky University.''

The team gets something, too. Its payoff is less tangible, but no less profound.

"Unconditional loyalty and enthusiasm,'' Bezold says. "It doesn't matter if you lose or win. Jillian is passionate about our program, but that doesn't change how she feels about us as people. When you can have that, it's special. You don't get that anymore.''

Jillian does important stuff, such as keeping the water bottles loaded and the towels folded neatly in a stack. She's learning the ins and outs of the industrial-sized washers and dryers. She keeps the clock during practice.

She also does silly stuff. Often, she will come to practice having prepared a new cheer for the team, which she unabashedly offers without invitation or provocation. Jillian's flair for performing and utter lack of self-conscience make for a frightening combination. Coach Beez usually has to cut her off, just to get some practice time in.

They met last August. Bezold and I were doing a radio show together at a restaurant near campus. Jillian had finished her freshman year. (Yes, kids like her can go to college.) I'd written about Jillian occasionally for the Cincinnati Enquirer. Bezold read the columns. He asked me if she'd be interested in being a manager for his team.

Well, um, hell yeah.

Jillian is a jock. Her jockness has been limited by her disability, but not contained by it. When you have a kid with Down syndrome, you hear a lot of Cant's. They are exceeded only by Won'ts and Nevers. We were told, 21 years ago, that Jillian Won't ride a bicycle.

The last time she and I rode, we did 21 miles on a local bike trail.

She Won't be as coordinated as her peers, so you Can't expect her to be much involved in physical activity. Jillian danced on the high school junior varsity team, at halftime of basketball games. She set school weightlifting records for her weight class, in the bench press and dead lift. As a Special Olympics swimmer, she finished second in the state in the 50-meter freestyle.

A special education teacher in her high school (where she was fully included in all regular education classes and graduated with her class) actually said in a meeting that Jillian "can't learn.'' Who's that kid in the Early Childhood class at NKU? Can't be Jillian, can it?

She has a boyfriend of six years and a summer job at a child-care center that last summer paid her $8 an hour for a 20-hour week. Occasionally, such as when I lost all my money on the golf course, I hit her up for a loan.

It's amazing what happens when we don't define people and instead, let them define themselves.

Dave Bezold gets it. Maybe because he has it in his blood. His father, Tony, was a high school coach and teacher, and helper of all who needed helping. More than once, Dave and his brother would give up their bedroom for one of Tony's needy. It could be a kid from school whose parents kicked him out of the house, or a distraught friend, abandoned by his wife. Tony took 'em all in, often for months at a time.

"There was always someone in need,'' Dave Bezold recalls.

All that Bezold kindness and equanimity has landed in the grateful lap of a little lady chugging through a suburban snow drift at 8 every weekday morning, to the open door of a city bus. "I love my job and my team,'' Jillian announces at random, routine moments. "They are in my heart.''

The players are warming to their newest, most loyal caretaker. To them, she is "J-Dog'' or "J-Coach'' whose tastes in music are a constant source of amusement. "No Snoop Dogg, J-Dog'' is a frequent request from NKU forward Bobby Shannon.

There is more. There is the matter of Dave Bezold's 6-year-old niece Amelia. Amelia was born severely disabled. She wasn't expected to live past the age of 2. She's thriving, but limited. Bezold says he hired Jillian to teach him how to better understand his niece. "That was entirely selfish and calculated on my part,'' the coach says.

As for what Jillian has taught the coach ...

"Patience,'' he says. "Kindness. Possibility.''

Jillian is no saint. She goes to practice every day but for a time didn't always stay. She'd arrive armed with a Coke and a cheeseburger from the student union, where refills are free. When Jillian finished the first Coke, she'd leave her job for a refill. After a few panic attacks owing to Jillian's disappearance, Bezold laid down the law. "From now on,'' he said, "your refills are water. Just like the rest of us.''

For several days, Jillian worried that Coach Beez would lay her off. "Don't fire me, Coach Beez,'' she begged. The Coke cup now has a bottom.

Meantime, Bezold gives Jillian a lot of responsibility and allows her total access. He thinks it's good for her, and his players. "She has helped our team grow. That's what college is,'' says Bezold. "To be exposed and to learn. My biggest concern with my players is they be able to function in society after they leave here.

"They're going to be exposed to all kinds of people and situations. (Jillian) represents another avenue to help them function.''

So here's the clean, little secret about doing good. Here's the selfish quality in a pure act of charity: It makes you feel good, too.

We're only as good as the way we treat each other. We're never better than when our hands are outstretched.

Postscript: The day I interviewed Dave Bezold, he handed me a contract for Jillian's signature. Beginning in January, she would be paid for her duties. Informed of this, Jillian jumped a little in the air. "Yes! Now I can take everyone out to eat!'' followed quickly by this: "Oh my god, I love my life.''

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