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Lunch conversations between Ethan Sage and Matt Kramer are usually lively and up-tempo, which is ironic, because there was a time not too long ago when Sage was convinced that he'd be struggling to fill the time.
"The first time I had lunch with Matt, I wasn't sure what to expect," Sage said. "But then we got to talking about gym class and football and basketball. Matt's in love with basketball and we connected because of that. Now, Matt's a non-stop talker. It's pretty cool."
Matt Kramer is a freshman at Lakes High School. He has Downs Syndrome and is in special classes.
Ethan Sage is a junior big man on campus, a popular three-sport athlete who was quarterback of the football team last fall, a double-figure scorer and leading rebounder for the basketball team this winter and is currently one of the top hitters for the baseball team, sitting at around .400 out of the lead-off spot.
On the surface, the two seem to have little in common, but lunch between Sage and Matt quickly proved otherwise, and has evolved into games of one-on-one basketball before gym class, board games after school, group dinners and trips to the movies.
The friendship the two boys now have is beyond anything Sage would have expected, and he says that no matter how busy he gets rushing from sport to sport, from season to season, he couldn't imagine not spending part of his day with Matt.
"To see him happy and fitting in is really great for me," said Sage, who has played a big part in creating a program at Lakes that helps other kids like Matt fit in and feel accepted.
Sage first noticed Matt in gym class back in the fall. Matt was shy and quiet back then. At lunch, he would wait until all the other students passed through the line before he would get his food.
"One day me and my friend (fellow Lakes athlete) Mike Brey asked Matt if he wanted to sit at our table at lunch," said Sage, who now eats lunch with Matt every day. "Another one of our friends, Aaron Hall, saw us hanging out with Matt and asked us if we had a ‘buddies program' at Lakes. We said we didn't, and that we didn't know what that was."
Hall transferred to Lakes from Grayslake North, where there is a program for special needs students to be paired up with athletes, kind of like a big brother/big sister program.
As Hall told Sage and Brey about that program, the three decided that they wanted to start a similar program at Lakes. They got Kyle Naughton, an English teacher, involved. He helped the boys get approval for a buddy program from the administration and "Lakes Eagle Buddies" was born.
Four months in, there are about 10 athletes and six special needs students involved in the buddy program.
The athletes share meals with the special needs students, walk them to class, help them with homework, take them on social outings and also sit with them in the student cheering section at school athletic events.
"It's a really great program and it's so neat to see these kids coming together," Lakes baseball coach Ray Gialo said. "As coaches, when you're working with athletes every day, you're never quite sure if they really get it, if they really see (the big picture) beyond themselves. But then you see something like this, what Ethan is doing, and you realize that they do.
"It's been really neat to see the special needs kids hanging around the athletes, the kids who are seen as popular, and really enjoying that part of the high school experience. And it's amazing to see how much the athletes have embraced their roles (in the buddy program)."
Sage, who recently had fun watching the "Lego" movie with Matt, says it's been easy for him be all in. As much as kids like Matt have gotten from the program, Sage says it's possible he's gotten more.
"This whole experience has really changed my perspective on special needs kids and how they are treated and what they are able to do," Sage said. "It's also made me think twice about what I have and what I am able to do. Now I always think about how kids with Downs Syndrome don't really get to play sports. Being given the athletic ability that I have is really such a gift, and I need to respect that."
Sage was blessed with his talents at an early age, and has always been juggling multiple sports. In addition to football, basketball and baseball, Sage also played soccer when he was younger.
"I've always been non-stop with sports," Sage said. "I really like competing. I look forward to it with each sport, and I like hanging out with my teammates.
"It can be tough sometimes, trying to keep up with all three sports, especially in the off-season. It can wear on you. It's always on to the next practice or workout or game. It's year-round. But I love all three sports and I want to continue playing them as long as I can."
With a strong arm and nice mobility for his size, the 6-foot-3 Sage thinks that football could be his ticket to an athletic career at the next level. He's already taken a visit to Winona State, which is where some of his teammates from last year, including former standout running back Direll Clark, are now playing.
"I'm looking to get as far as I can in football. I'm looking for that football scholarship," said Sage, who is projected to start at quarterback for Lakes next season. "But I love all the sports I play and I try hard in all of them and maybe something could happen in basketball or baseball, too.
"I've heard from some Division III schools for basketball and we'll see what happens with baseball after this season. The plan is to keep playing something."
The "buddy program" is also in Sage's future plans. He says he will be involved again next year and would like to see more students at Lakes sign up.
"People are asking me about it, which means that they are at least thinking about it," Sage said. "We want to keep it going because we think it's been really good for our school. I've talked to teachers who say the culture is changing at Lakes because of this.
"We think the program has changed the way kids at our school look at special needs students. I think they're realizing that these kids are just like them. All they want to do is fit in."
• Follow Patricia on Twitter: @babcockmcgraw