Two days after the Manasquan High (N.J.) baseball team dropped a 6-3 decision to Raritan (N.J.), coach Art Gordon gathered his team in the Big Blue Warriors' locker room.
"What happened?" asked Gordon, a dusty baseball lifer with a notoriously short fuse.
"We lost," the team replied in unison.
"Because Frankie wasn't there."
The boys were pinning the defeat squarely on the slender shoulders of Frankie Kineavy, a wheelchair-bound, nonverbal, 18-year-old senior who was born with cerebral palsy.
Instead of plodding through the loss with his teammates, Kineavy had spent that Saturday mingling with his fellow accepted students at Villanova University, 82 miles west of Manasquan, a central Jersey Shore town known equally for its rowdy, twentysomething summer crowd and the success of Big Blue Warriors athletics.
Kineavy's buddies were only half-joking when they blamed him for the loss. His presence in the dugout is not a token. He is not there to simply tug on a few heartstrings. Yes, he is an inspiration. But he also is a knowledgeable baseball resource and is there to help his beloved school win ballgames.
"He's like the second coach," senior Barry Jost said. "If anybody is messing up, he's right there to tell them about it."
Senior Pat McWade was eager to jump in.
"He just doesn't yell as loud."
Like any other member of the team, Kineavy is not immune to some locker room chop busting. And he's quick to give it right back using a makeshift keyboard on his motorized wheelchair. On one side of the board is a printout listing commonly used words like "who," "what," "where," "when" and "why." On the other is the alphabet and numbers. He points to the words and letters he wants to use, spelling out his thoughts. It takes a few minutes to catch Kineavy's style, but those thoughts regularly lead to a room full of genuine laughter.
At first I thought, you know, we'll have him around, make him feel good. No. Uh-huh. It's not a feel-good story. I don't know what we'll do without him.
-- Art Gordon
"In the end," senior Karl Fisk said, "he's just a jokester."
After the meeting in the Manasquan locker room, Gordon told Kineavy he had to stop swearing. Fully aware of the coach's legendary temper, Kineavy calmly typed "S", "H" and "I" on his board. He stopped and eyed Gordon cautiously. The room erupted. Nobody laughed harder than Kineavy.
"You have to experience the Frankie Kineavy Experience," Gordon said. "You don't know what he's going to say next."
The endless trash-talking started, Kineavy said, "When they found out I was just physically handicapped."
Bestowed with this untraditional gift of gab, Kineavy has become the face of Manasquan athletics. He started as an assistant coach on the basketball team and then expanded the role to include baseball and football. In December, a regional newspaper ran a front-page picture of the Big Blue Warriors celebrating their Central Jersey, Group II state football championship. The frame was full of flexing jocks, raising helmets high over broad, padded shoulders. Smack in the middle of the revelry was a skinny Kineavy, grinning along with his teammates.
In all three sports, Kineavy's role consists of analyzing game film and scouting upcoming opponents. He routinely asks the coaches for more responsibility.
"At first I thought, you know, we'll have him around, make him feel good," Gordon said. "No. Uh-huh. It's not a feel-good story. I don't know what we'll do without him."
Since the Frankie Kineavy Experience extends far beyond athletics, the entire Manasquan community is asking the same question.
"It's not just the sports," Kineavy said of his attachment to the school. "It's everything."
The key to Kineavy's ascension to Manasquan royalty is his ability to develop relationships with everybody he meets. At first, people aren't sure how to react to a teenager who can't walk or talk. Kineavy said meeting people for the first time is his biggest challenge. But when they take the time to stop and read what he has to say, they're hooked.
"He inspires us and his classmates because of everything he does," said Sean McCarthy, Manasquan's dean of students. "We hope to use his life to show other kids that if they work hard, aim high and never give up, you can accomplish anything."
Kineavy's father, Frank, remembers being concerned when he took Frankie to Manasquan orientation. Frankie, fresh out of nearby Sea Girt Elementary, was bumping into walls, struggling to make his way around the new hallways. Those hallways now belong to him.
He has excelled in every aspect of high school life. He has a date for the prom and approaches graduation armed with a solid A average. Once he was asked whether he took normal classes. "No," he said, "I take honors classes." Two months before he graduates, Kineavy has a hard time picking out a favorite Manasquan memory.
"Do I have to pick one?" he said. "Or can I say something that I do every day, like just going into the cafeteria?"
On his 18th birthday, the catering staff decorated that cafeteria with balloons and the entire school sang "Happy Birthday." No corner of the building remains untouched by Kineavy's friendship. One day, his father dropped him off at school. Instead of heading into the building for class, he wheeled toward the maintenance department to say hi to the guys who voluntarily fix his chair.
"I've never seen him in a bad mood," his father said. "People look forward to seeing him. He makes people feel better."
McCarthy has worked closely with Kineavy for four years. On the door to his office, a typed message announces, "Frankie Kineavy, Villanova University." In the letter of recommendation he wrote to Villanova, McCarthy said Kineavy "established his own legacy at Manasquan High School."
Instead of the traditional sheet of paper, Kineavy's résumé is a 40-page portfolio, bound and laminated. It follows his life as he organized charity basketball tournaments with Rutgers coach Freddie Hill and created scholarships for local underprivileged students. He's won awards and handed them out, written poems and posed for pictures with presidents. Even George W. Bush and Bill Clinton are part of the Frankie Kineavy Experience.
"I think Frankie has developed lifelong friendships with people," McCarthy said. "We see the way Frankie changed teachers and students. He showed people what it's like to be handicapped. He can't walk and talk, but his brain is better than ours."
Once at Villanova, Kineavy is most looking forward to expanding his interests. Like all 18-year-olds, he's anxious to get away from his hometown. He wants to get involved with the drama department and has spoken to coach Jay Wright about a position with the Wildcats' basketball team. He's already talking majors.
"Maybe education, if somebody will hire me," Kineavy said, casting a knowing glance at McCarthy, a man who might someday be in a position to do just that.
Ned Winner is a freelance writer in New Jersey.