LITTLE ROCK — Intentionally turning the ball over against Farmington’s No. 1 rival, eleventh grader Jeremy Mueller transcended sports.
To appreciate the humanity and warmth of Mueller, some words about the heated competition between his Cardinals and Prairie Grove, a few miles south on U.S. 62.
"Like Arkansas-Texas back in the day," said Farmington principal Jon Purifoy.
"The biggest game of the year," Mueller said. "When basketball season starts, it’s the first thing you look for on the calendar."
Flash back to last week and Senior Night at Prairie Grove, the final regular-season opportunity for McKay Gregson to get on the court as a player. A manager since the seventh grade, Gregson has 22q11.2 deletion syndrome, which comes with limitations. Until last week, the only time he had worn a uniform was as an escort at a homecoming game.
"I knew his name was McKay," Mueller said. "We played many times. Everybody knew his story."
With 10 seconds left, Gregson entered the game and fired up a shot that hit the rim and bounced to Mueller, who realized there were a few ticks on the clock. He started to yell at Gregson, but couldn’t remember his name in the heat of the moment. Motioning, he got his opponent’s attention and passed Gregson the ball.
The buzzer beater was good. Rarely has a crowd celebrated a homecourt loss with such enthusiasm.
"After he got the first shot off, I didn’t think twice about it," Mueller said. "I wanted him to have a good senior night."
Gregson’s parents, Gretchen and Lynn, sought out Mueller after the game. Ty, a student at Brigham Young who had flown in for the game hoping to see brother McKay play, was there.
"They gave me hugs and they were crying," Mueller said. "His dad was at a loss for words."
Graciously, Mueller hung around 10 minutes for a picture with Gregson, tears still visible.
Cardinal and Tiger, standing together, arms around each other. Mueller put the picture on Instagram. "It was really cool," Mueller said.
Appreciative, the Gregsons took Mueller and his family to dinner the next night at a Mexican restaurant in Prairie Grove. They talked about the moment being "life-changing" and Gregson’s mother repeated some of the things she said the previous night in a television interview.
"When you have a kid with special needs, you watch your other kids in school get to have special moments and have recognition and things like that," she told station 40-29. "So sometimes your heart breaks when your special kid doesn’t get to have those times. So the fact that he got a moment like that for him to treasure for the rest of his life is really heart-warming for all of us."
Praised for his compassion, Mueller’s responded, "I don’t want to take anything away from his special moment." Not surprisingly, he is considering a degree in child development so he can help with orphan care. Medicine is also an option.
Shortly after the conversation ended, Mueller crafted an email, thanking me for taking the time to call him. The last interview subject who said thanks might have been Dowell Loggains, a one-time clipboard toter at Arkansas who is now the quarterbacks coach with the Cleveland Browns.
Prairie Grove coach Steve Edmiston was not shocked Gregson made the shot. Every day, the young man is at the gym, shooting mostly 3s, until practice starts.
Post-game, Edmiston talked to his team about the 64-58 loss and what he called the "silver lining." Gregson thanked Edmiston for putting him in the game and then turned his attention to the team, telling the coach: "I think we can go far in the district tournament."
Prairie Grove opened the tournament at Farmington on Wednesday night, hours after the column was finished. The score is immaterial. After last week, there are no losers.
(Harry King is sports columnist for Stephens Media’s Arkansas News Bureau. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org)