Manny Newhart brought home a yellow, left-handed Fender Stratocaster, and told his teenage son something history has confirmed time and time again: "If you want the girls to like you, learn to play this."
No surprise, the always-smiling Frankie, who loves music and iTunes, was intrigued. Like most 15-year-old high school students, he was always looking for a way to impress the girls. The challenge of learning to play, however, was significant.
Born premature at 35 weeks, Frankie wasn't breathing when he entered the world. Doctors quickly put him on oxygen, but he was forced to spend significant time in an incubator. While a normal weight and length, Frankie had very low muscle tone, and seemed to be missing significant benchmarks as a baby.
"We knew about the time he should be rolling and walking and talking," says his mother, Marta, "and Frankie just didn't." Doctors suspected he might have Duchenne muscular dystrophy, but tests ruled that out. And while they were able to diagnose a severe developmental delay, the Newharts don't know the exact cause. Regardless, he's enormously social -- the rare non-senior at his Boulder, Colo., high school who keeps getting invited to senior prom.
Guitar in hand, Frankie headed to Google, typing in "left-handed guitar" and looking for people who played like he would. Even casual rock fans can guess what name came up first. "He started watching videos of Jimi Hendrix playing the National Anthem at Woodstock, and just got really into it," Marta says. "His guitar teacher at the time realized the smartest thing she could do was teach him a song. Once he could see he could play it, he could go back, learn the chords, and she could teach him other things."
Inspired by one of music's most iconic moments, Frankie chose "The Star-Spangled Banner."
Frankie and his teacher went one line at a time, painstakingly learning and memorizing every note over the course of a year. When he heard about Special Olympics World Games in Los Angeles, Frankie grew determined to play the anthem at the opening ceremony.
"He just kept saying, 'I could play there. I could do this. That's what I want to dream about,'" Marta says. She sent in a video of him playing before a baseball game at his high school. Initially, he was turned down. As it turns out, there just aren't any opportunities to play the anthem beyond the pomp-and-circumstance of the opening ceremony. At the World Games, medalists aren't honored with their country's anthem, and the anthem isn't played before the start of an event.
Undeterred, Frankie sent a letter to Special Olympics, explaining how much he wanted to play. With his guitar, he wrote, he feels really cool. As his mom explains, "cool" for Frankie really means an opportunity to be like everyone else. "When he picks up the guitar, something happens. It's just harder to overlook him."
Marta was equally determined. She stayed in contact with Special Olympics. Eventually, Frankie's video reached Dwayne Jones, vice president of special events and entertainment for World Games 2015. "I wanted to make his dream come true," Jones says. "That's kind of what we're here for, what we're trying to do."
The World Games feature an extensive calendar of entertainment festivals at USC and UCLA, featuring intellectually and physically disabled performers, Unified acts and more. But those performers had the ability to fill blocks of time -- 10, 20, 30 minutes or more. Frankie didn't have that depth of repertoire, so Jones came up with the idea of a talent showcase, "dedicating it to performers who may only do one thing, but really want to get up and express that."
About a month ago, the Newharts got the word: Frankie was in.
"I was like, 'Yes!'" he says.
Thursday afternoon, Frankie will realize his dream, playing the anthem on a newly painted red Strat -- after his parents presented him with a second yellow guitar, Frankie decided he wanted a change -- on the stage at UCLA's Wilson Plaza. "Preparing for the Olympics, he's been practicing two or three times a day, and then he listens to Whitney Houston and Aretha Franklin sing the national anthem so that he can learn where to pause," Marta says. "His teacher, the one he has now, told him that those ladies sing it the best, and they know when to pause, so Frankie listens to them."
It's the same level of dedication shown by the athletes at the Special Olympics World Games, who pour enormous effort, energy and focus into training and competition. It also demonstrates the reach of the Special Olympics.
"The Special Olympics movement is about so much more than sports," Jones says. "It's really about creating opportunities for people to flourish, and empowering them to do so. So we were able to take it a step further there."
Frankie is hoping to play for a packed house, and could get his wish. The festival areas at both universities have been hopping so far. For his parents, there will probably be tears. For Frankie, making it to Special Olympics makes him proud.
"I've been working on it really hard, and I've been practicing," he says, "[Practicing] at night and in the morning, too. I've been working on it really hard."
How's that for cool?