Lisa Ellars needed to come up with a rotation. Her little room at John Adams Middle School couldn’t accommodate her class plus the 20 football players who were visiting daily.
It was supposed to be a once-a-month movie club her sixth-grade special education class hosted. But when Ryan Switzer, the state’s sandlot football star, began showing up to see his best friend, Cliff, and help out the class, people took notice.
“They’re a special pair, and the thing about it is, I probably would never have known Cliff if not for their relationship,” George Washington High School football coach Steve Edwards Jr. said. “A lot of people might not have known what kind of great, loving, funny man Cliff is and how he enjoyed life. Cliff ran the school the whole time he was here.”
Cliff is Clifton Reid III, affectionately known as “Pint” around Charleston, West Virginia. He and Switzer, now a 22-year-old senior receiver at North Carolina and on the cusp of tying the NCAA record for punt-return touchdowns, first met when Reid was shooting baskets alone in the middle school gym. Switzer reached out to Reid, who has Down syndrome and is on the autism spectrum. Not long after, Switzer was signing up for Ellars’ club and coming every day.
It inspired a movement among his teammates. So many wanted to join Switzer daily that Ellars had to create a schedule. It carried over to high school, where Reid, once closed off and introverted, became a beloved member of the football team and student body.
“He’s blossomed, and I owe a lot of it to Ryan,” Reid’s father, Clifton Reid II, said. “It’s something I couldn’t do. He’s helped my child develop. These are things normal teenagers don’t do, and it comes from his heart.”
Michael Switzer couldn’t find his son after North Carolina’s victory at Virginia on Oct. 22. Ryan Switzer, second in the ACC in receptions and a punt-return touchdown short of tying the NCAA career mark of seven, had left the field. He wanted Reid, who was in the stands to watch Switzer for the first time this season, to come celebrate in the Tar Heels’ locker room.
Michael led Reid down to the sideline, and he and Ryan walked off the field together, just as they did after every high school game. Before games, Reid ran alongside Switzer out of the tunnel. After games, they’d walk back in, Switzer’s helmet sitting loosely on Reid’s head and an old Switzer jersey draped over his shoulders.
In between, Reid served as the team manager. He incited the crowd from the sidelines, climbing into the stands to run the bleachers if he sensed spirit dimming. He sat in on meetings, often dancing or lip-syncing during tense halftime adjustments.
As Switzer grew into one of the best athletes to come out of West Virginia, Reid was alongside him as a member of the team. Switzer introduced Charleston to his friend, and the city gravitated toward Reid, known as “Pint” because of his small size.
“All because one jock took the time and made an effort, everyone, from junior high to high school, accepted Cliff and the other kids [in his class],” said Ellars, who was Reid’s aide, too.
Switzer said he doesn’t remember seeing someone with Down syndrome or on the autism spectrum before sixth grade, when he saw Reid eating lunch. Later that week, he encountered Reid alone in the gym, shooting baskets.
“Something just clicked,” Switzer said.
Students at John Adams were required to sign up for a club, so Switzer joined the one Reid’s class hosted, which was a movie once a month. Not once did Ellars ever need to turn the TV on, however. Switzer came to help, working with Reid on his reading and math. Reid would copy Switzer’s writing on the blackboard.
The rest of the football team followed Switzer’s lead, and over the course of the school year the club grew to 20 students volunteering.
“It’s because Ryan is who he is,” said Luke Eddy, who is Switzer's friend. “I don’t believe it’d have the same impact if it was someone else.”
Reid joined Switzer’s lunch table, and if a careful eye wasn’t kept, he’d hack into an unattended phone and start blasting rap music. Switzer and Reid would often go to the mall or grab lunch. Sometimes they sparred over girls.
In eighth grade, Switzer solicited donations from the entire class to buy Christmas presents for Reid’s class, which included several other students with whom Switzer and his friends had grown close.
“Ryan Switzer,” Reid said, “that’s my boy.”
Before Switzer and Reid struck up their friendship, Reid was withdrawn. His father said his son felt different and wasn’t comfortable in the school system. He didn’t talk much. If a teacher wasn’t looking, he’d bolt from the classroom. Once Switzer and Reid began hanging out, Reid's father noticed his son's speech and communication improve.
“He enjoys life and everything now versus this little shell he was in, and I credit that to Ryan,” Clifton II said. “He’s coming home and smiling. He was happy and looking forward to school. He used to lie around and not want to be bothered.”
Over their high school years, the boys’ bond became a brotherhood. Reid joined Switzer on his official visit to North Carolina; at one point, Reid wandered off and Switzer found him wearing future first-round pick Eric Ebron's pads. Later that season, Reid was on the field with Switzer’s family for senior night. A few months after that, Switzer was adamant that Reid walk with the 2013 graduating class. Reid was allowed to attend high school until he was 21, but Switzer thought he should attend graduation with his friends.
Reid walked, receiving a standing ovation. Ellars remembers seeing tears welling on faces.
“People look at it skeptically, but Ryan is not that type of kid," Edwards said. “Sometimes guys with his talent and ability get a raw deal because people think they’re all about themselves. He’s a very loving and true young man. He’s always helping with everyone.”
Reid’s father isn’t the type to fall speechless, but when it comes to Switzer and his son, he just can’t find the right words. No one understands his son better than Switzer, he said, but what confounds him most is that Switzer could have easily lost touch with Reid now that he’s 300 miles away.
Yet Switzer will routinely call Reid, and the two will talk for hours. When Switzer comes home on breaks, he’ll bring North Carolina clothes for Reid to match the size 4 Jordan sneakers he raised enough money to buy him for Christmas in eighth grade. The clothes quickly tatter because Reid never wants to take them off.
“They got to my heart,” Reid II said. “Except for his brothers and sister, no one cares and looks out for Pint like Ryan.”
Reid’s father said no one understands his son quite like Switzer, and yet it’s Switzer who routinely thanks Reid's father for allowing him to maintain his bond with Reid.
“He’s done more for me than I could ever do for him,” Switzer said. “He’s been my best friend for 11 years. He doesn’t care what I do on the football field. He loves me for who I am.”