Lifelong advocate for disabled now helping them make hook shots


Steve Noll, from left, coaches members of the Sidney Lanier Unicorns in the school's gymnasium recently. Noll is a coach, mentor and referee to kids and adults with developmental disabilities.

Courtesy photo
Published: Friday, December 20, 2013 at 2:23 p.m.
Last Modified: Friday, December 20, 2013 at 2:23 p.m.

As a child, Steve Noll figured his father was no different from any other dad.

"I just assumed everyone's father had one leg," he said.

He recalls one day when he was too young to understand, he started crying and telling his bewildered parents he didn't want to be a father.

"My assumption was when you became a father, they chopped off your leg," he said. "Because I assumed it was just normal. Because it was just so normal for me."

His father's prosthetic leg was possibly what first influenced his views on people with disabilities, Noll, 61, said. Now, more than 50 years later, he's influencing how others view disability, too.

***

On Wednesday afternoons, a ragtag team of boys, some tall and skinny and others short and round, take the court at the Sidney Lanier Center's gym. On the court, they're no longer young men with disabilities trying to figure out the world around them. They're just basketball players learning to dribble with one hand and shoot overhand.

They're the mighty Unicorns, and Noll is their coach.

During one particular practice, he strolled around the court to observe volunteers who were instructing the boys how to shoot the ball.

One member of the team, named Austin, who is so friendly he'll walk right up to a person and introduce himself with a handshake, was in the corner trying to throw the basketball underhand toward the net.

"Don't shoot like grandma," Noll hollers.

He walks over and encourages the boy to shoot with his arms up. Around them the gym is filled with the sound of bouncing basketballs and tennis shoes squeaking across the floor.

"We are the mighty mighty Unicorns," is painted on the wall.

With the ball back in his hands, Austin takes another shot, this time pushing the ball up from his chest.

"That's what I want," Noll says.

He congratulates the boy on his shot with a two-handed high-five. And just for few seconds, he holds on to the boy's hands, looks him in the eyes and offers a few more words of encouragement before walking away to supervise the other players.

Noll has been doing this for 35 years. He was a teacher here when the center decided to establish a basketball program, and since Noll played the game himself, it just seemed natural that he would be the coach.

In 2004, he left the center as a teacher to be a full-time history professor at the University of Florida. But he stayed on as the basketball coach.

So every Wednesday when he finishes teaching his American history survey course at 11:30 a.m., he hops on his bike and pedals 2.2 miles to the center for practice.

Noll went to graduate school for special education at UF and received a master's in 1976. Before he came to Gainesville, he studied history at the College of William and Mary.

When he graduated with his bachelor's, he wasn't sure what he wanted to do. But he remembered the seven summers he spent working at the Association for the Help of Retarded Children camp in upstate New York, and so he thought he might be suited for special education.

Working at the camp was his first job. At 15, he was helping children with mental disabilities swim, make art and play field sports.

Although he was young, he said the mentality of the kids at the camp didn't shock him. He grew up next door to a neighbor who had Down syndrome.

Noll said he enjoyed teaching at the center, where he worked for 28 years because it was never boring.

"I feel like you're making a difference in people's lives," he said. "Also, it's fun. It's not this kind of structured day that regular teaching is."

***

Standing in front of his disability in American history class, Noll's white New Balance sneakers peek out from below his dark blue dress pants that seem to be about an inch too long.

His tan, button-down shirt is wrinkled, and his eyes, which are framed by dark caterpillar eyebrows, scan the class of 36 students.

"What's the mantra for this class," Noll asks.

"Words matter," the students reply in grumbling unison.

It's 9:36 a.m. on a Thursday in room 119 of Keane-Flint Hall, and almost every seat is filled with a student bundled up in a coat to combat the early morning chill.

Today's class focuses on Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973. The legislation was the first in history of federal law to ban discrimination against people with disabilities in programs conducted by federal agencies.

But most people, even history majors, could not tell you the significance of 504, Noll says. He hops up and sits on the desk in front of the class.

Describing the history of the bill, he weaves in the stories of how it took years for a president to sign it and how people in wheelchairs and others who were deaf conducted sit-ins. The inflections of his voice punch the important words and points he's trying to make.

One woman puts down her pen and leans forward. A few others have stopped jotting down notes and are now just listening.

Noll is writing a book on disability rights protests. He said the motivation for writing it came from teaching his survey of American history course.

"Because when you teach the survey, the narrative of the survey is that all these protest movements come out of the civil rights movement, you know, the women's movement, the gay and lesbian movement, the environmental movement and all those kinds of things, and no one ever mentions anything about disability. So, it's a good time to try and bring it into the mainstream narrative of history."

Darcy Messina, 19, decided to take Noll's disability course after she had him for survey of American history last year. In today's class, she took to the front of the class to talk about her book report on "The State Boys Rebellion."

Messina describes the details of the non-fiction book on the abuse of boys in a 1970s Massachusetts mental institution.

"I think, in the future, this should be in textbooks," she says.

Noll said the reason these stories are not in many history books is because of the way society looks at people who have disabilities.

"They're throw-away people, so it's throw-away history," he said.

***

Back on the court, and the boys of the Unicorn basketball team are playing a scrimmage against the volunteers who come every week to help the boys learn to play.

"Find your spot," Noll instructs them.

The Unicorns score first. The volunteers score next. And then the Unicorns score again.

Their coach watches from the sidelines yelling for the boys to pass or shoot when the situation arises.

Twenty-five minutes go by, and the game is almost over. The Unicorns win 18-16.

Noll blows his whistle and tells them all to huddle up in the middle of the court.

"What are we going to say on three?" he says.

"Unicorns," some of the boys reply.

And then, with everyone's hands piled on one another, the team shouts, "Unicorns!"

Noll watches as the players leave the court, entering back into a world they don't always understand and that doesn't always understand them.

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