Alex Symonds showed up at Bel-Air Bowl on Monday ready for another Belleville East High bowling match.
As the team manager, Symonds’ many duties include keeping statistics, making sure the coaches are informed on what’s going on with various bowlers and most importantly, cheering for the Lancers.
However, this night would prove to be far different.
An 18-year-old senior at Belleville East and part of the school’s assisted learning program, Symonds wasn’t prepared for what happened next. Not only was he going to be honored during the team’s annual Senior Night, but Symonds was surprised to learn he was being given the honor of bowling right along with the rest of the varsity team.
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In the leadoff spot.
The idea came from the bowlers and bowling coach Marcus Barriger, a special education teacher at Belleville East.
“He means so much,” Belleville East senior Geneva Fox said of Symonds. “I don’t think words can describe how much he means to us. We’ve never had a manager as great as he has been to us. He means everything.”
Symonds was born with Cornelia de Lange Syndrome (CdLS), a genetic disorder that typically includes small birth weight and affects physical and cognitive skills.
“He grows slower, he learns slower, there’s some physical disabilities,” said Alex’s mother, Jennifer Symonds. “When he was born, they told us he was probably not going to be able to walk or talk. But he’s doing great and he’s such a joy to be around.”
The entire Symonds family are avid bowlers and compete in various leagues and tournaments. Alex Symonds quickly developed a love for the sport.
“He really got into bowling and it was something he could do, so we just went with it,” Jennifer Symonds said. “He watches the professionals, the colleges. He just loves bowling.”
Her oldest son, Jared, is 22 and a former bowler at Belleville East while 12-year-old Elisabeth also bowls. Father Darrin Symonds is retired from the Air Force and has several 300 games to his credit while competing in various military tourneys around the country. The family lives in Belleville.
Given a chance to bowl with the varsity Lancers, Alex Symonds did not disappoint. He rolled a 406 — the highest series of his young life — and helped Belleville East to a victory over Taylorville.
Alex called the night “fabulous” and said he was so excited after finding out he would get to bowl that “I jumped up and down.”
More than 100 people came to watch, including Symonds’ family, his Belleville East teachers and a lot more. He also received two signed cards from his teammates as well as a large autographed bowling pin.
“My grandma and grandpa and my cousins and everybody (were there),” Symonds said.
“Being a part of it was inspirational,” Lancers senior bowler Austin Swires said. “We had little secret meetings and stuff to be able plan it out. It was difficult to keep it a secret because he normally knows what’s up.
“It was actually really, really cool. He’s been there for every match and he’s not going to miss our postseason either.”
Barriger had no idea how things would progress, but said he was overjoyed with the final results.
“I don’t know if these seniors know the effect they’ve had on Alex or what they’ve done,” Barriger said. “They’ve done something really, really special and in today’s world of athletics, it takes moments like this that allow you to step back and realize it’s not always about winning and losing.
“It’s about giving somebody an opportunity that may not get that opportunity otherwise. I knew he’d be excited, but this was making a dream come true for somebody.”
As the match continued, bowlers from Belleville West and Freeburg also competing at Bel-Air made their way down to watch Alex and cheer him on.
More than 100 people crowded around the lanes to get a glimpse of the special night when the team manager became the star attraction.
“It was so emotional,” Jennifer Symonds said. “I couldn’t believe that all the seniors and the coach set all of this up to surprise Alex. He was very emotional, it took a few minutes to get him to calm back down. Even the bowlers from Taylorville were coming up to Alex and congratulating him.”
Her voice cracked with emotion as she talked about what the evening meant to Alex and the entire family.
“For these kids just to take him and treat him like he’s no different than anybody else. ... this has actually made him feel like he’s part of the team,” Jennifer Symonds said. “He’s gotten really close with some of them his own age and it’s good interaction for him, too. They didn’t have to do that, it was their night just as much as it was his.”
Alex is also an avid fan of the Cardinals and loves hockey, especially the Buffalo Sabres, since that’s where his parents are from. He already plans to continue his bowling career in an adult league at Scott Air Force Base next season.
This is Barriger’s third season as the East bowling coach. A former standout pitcher at Belleville West, Kaskaskia College and Armstrong Atlantic, he was drafted by the Tampa Bay Rays and played minor-league baseball in their system and later for the Gateway Grizzlies.
Barriger has also coached championship baseball teams in the Mon-Clair League, but said Alex’s special night at Bel-Air Bowl will stick with him the longest.
“This is the most proud athletic moment I’ve had,” Barriger said. “It tops the day I was drafted. This was the top moment that I’ve experienced as far as a moment where you’re just proud of your team and your teammates. To keep my emotions in check was the hardest thing I did.”
Even though Symonds is the team manager, he has always been treated as if he’s one of the bowlers.
“He gets to do everything the bowlers do,” Barriger said. “He practices every day with us and during matches he usually takes stats or is our runner and lets us know what’s going on. He pretty much does eveyrhing that we ask him to do.”
Providing inspiration is what Symonds does best.
“He’s probably been our biggest supporter this year,” Barriger said. “His enthusiasm and excitement is what makes other kids on our team better.”
Fox believes Symonds is like a teammate and friend to everyone in the program.
“He’s got the most spirit out there,” she said. “He lifts us up when we are rock bottom.”