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Unique friendship between Tyler Millett and Angelo Branca has been an inspiration for the EHT football team

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By DAVE O’SULLIVAN Publisher Helmet stickers. They are a source of pride for high school football players. A sign that you are making a difference in the program, earning your place on the team. Egg Harbor Township defensive coordinator Ryan Platt presented junior Tyler Millett with a pair of helmet stickers prior to the Eagles’ game against Southern Regional on Nov. 13, and Millett certainly has earned them. He is one member of the team who believes, without question, that EHT will win every time the Eagles step on the field. There’s never a doubt. He believes in every single player in that locker room who puts on a black and silver jersey. He believes EHT has the best coaching staff, the best band, the best cheerleaders. Even the best snack bar. But Tyler Millett doesn’t have a helmet to put the stickers on. He has never played a down of football for Egg Harbor Township, and never will. And yet, he might have made a bigger impact on the 2014 season than any player who suited up. His relationship with star senior defensive lineman Angelo Branca has been a source of inspiration for the EHT football team and its coaching staff. It has changed Angelo’s life, and it has changed Tyler’s as well. It has changed the way successful athletes view fellow students who face challenges in life that most athletes never will, and it has created a bond that stretches far beyond the football field. It’s a bond that has led a group of teenagers to think beyond the incubated locker room of a high school football team. That bond has helped break down barriers and has shown high school football players what coaches want them to see: that there are far greater challenges in life than converting a 4th-and-10 from your own 35-yard line when you’re trailing in the fourth quarter. ‘Coach T’ Egg Harbor Township head coach Kevin Stetser made Tyler an honorary coach this season. Tyler suffers from Cerebral palsy and walks with the aid of arm braces, but through the friendship he and Angelo have developed over the last several years, Tyler has become an invaluable part of the team. He gets the guys fired up in the locker room before games, gives them encouraging words whenever they pass by. He even looks like a coach with his yellow whistle dangling around his neck, and pregame warmups don’t start until “Coach T” blows his whistle. Egg Harbor Township junior Tyler Millett, left, suffers from Cerebral palsy, but that hasn't stopped him from becoming a huge part of the Eagles' football program. His good friend Angelo Branca, right, a defensive end, helped Tyler become an honorary assistant coach this season, complete with his own game jersey. (Photo by Ben Hale/Benjamin Hale Photography) Egg Harbor Township junior Tyler Millett, left, suffers from Cerebral palsy, but that hasn’t stopped him from becoming a huge part of the Eagles’ football program. His good friend Angelo Branca, right, a defensive end, helped Tyler become an honorary assistant coach this season, complete with his own game jersey. (Photo by Ben Hale/Benjamin Hale Photography) The players have adopted him as one of their own. He’s managed to join the football brotherhood without ever tossing a football on the sideline. He’s well known around school, now that he has a lofty position on the coaching staff. Heck, not many high school kids can say they are a football coach. He’s even a big star on Instagram, according to offensive coordinator Ryan Smith. “I see it. When Tyler walks into the lunchroom everybody is like, ‘hey, Tyler!’ And it’s not just the guys wearing jerseys, it’s tons of different kids. It spreads like wildfire. No one sees him as having a disability, they just see him as one of the guys hanging out, even though he is on crutches and you can see his disability,” Smith said. “All you need is one kid to hang around and say, ‘hey, Tyler, how ya doing?’ And now the whole team is doing it in the hallways. In our public schools, Tyler isn’t the only kid with special needs, we have a lot. And I’ve never been a part of something where (athletes) are so respective of them. Typically you get a special needs student who everybody is scared to talk to, but it is 100 percent the opposite with Angelo and our guys, and it really stems from Ang.” Taking the lead To Angelo, his friendship with Tyler shouldn’t be seen as a big deal. Just two guys who like to pal around together. But what Angelo may not realize is just how far reaching his initial display of kindness has become. He didn’t have to introduce himself to Tyler that day in the middle school gym. Nobody would have thought differently of him if he hadn’t. But that’s just the kind of person Angelo is. He saw a kid who looked like he needed and wanted somebody to talk to, not a kid who should be shunned because he didn’t walk the way everyone else walked. “With Tyler, and our friendship, people look at it and put it out in the spotlight a little bit, but it’s not really like that at all. We’ve been really good friends since middle school and that’s just carried over into high school,” Angelo said. “I was in my lunch period at Alder Avenue Middle School, and me and my friends would always go to the gym to play basketball. My lunch period was his class’ gym period. That’s how I met Tyler and really got to know him and what he was all about.” “I feel like it’s been happening for a long time and people are getting to see it now. The funny part is it’s not like we watched a news show and Angelo started doing that. He does it out of the kindness of his heart and that’s awesome to see,” Smith said. “Not many schools have a lot of students with disabilities. Egg Harbor Township has a large aspect of that. And if you walk through the hallways you wouldn’t think anything of it, kids being respectful to them. It’s just awesome stuff.” “With this situation, it was completely on his own, but that’s the type of kid Angelo is,” Stetser said. “He is a heart-and-soul kid. He gets it. He stands up and speaks to his teammates. Everything he says is from the heart and everything he does is from the heart. He is a quality kid. He gets the big picture.” Angelo said he understands why people put their friendship in the spotlight, but no matter what people say about it he’s not friends with Tyler for any other reason than to simply be his friend. He’s not looking for recognition or awards or anything like that. He’s not looking for a handshake from the mayor. To Angelo, being nice to someone and giving them the respect they deserve just comes naturally. “People spotlight our friendship because it might seem odd to some people, but it’s true that I look at Tyler like I look at any other person I talk to,” Angelo said. “There’s really not much of a reason to spotlight it in my mind, because we’re really just friends.” Angelo shows a tender side when he is with Tyler that often isn’t associated with defensive linemen. He jokes around with him just like he would any other player. Angelo jokes that with Tyler’s newfound popularity, Angelo has had to take a backseat when it comes to garnering the attentions of the female student population at EHT. “He gets all the ladies. I don’t know how he does it. It must be the jersey,” Angelo said. ‘Best year of my life’ Tyler’s life has changed dramatically in the past year. As he has gotten older, Angelo said Tyler’s parents have been open to him getting more involved with school activities. And Angelo watches over him like a protective brother, giving him rides to and from practices and games, checking up on him throughout the day at school. That kind of compassion has helped Tyler break out of his shell a little bit and become an active member of the EHT High School community. Tyler has returned the favor by becoming the most devoted fan of the Eagles’ football team. Inspired by Tyler's determination and positive attitude, Angelo become one of the best defensive ends in the Cape-Atlantic League in his senior season, capping the year with a great performance in EHT's 13-0 win over rival Mainland on Thanksgiving. (Glory Days Magazine photo/Dave O'Sullivan) Inspired by Tyler’s determination and positive attitude, Angelo became one of the best defensive ends in the Cape-Atlantic League in his senior season, capping the year with a great performance in EHT’s 13-0 win over rival Mainland on Thanksgiving. (Glory Days Magazine photo/Dave O’Sullivan) “This is what they do. They are good kids, very accepting, and it’s awesome. Everybody sees it, everybody is a part of it and it’s something that is passed on from year to year.” “To be with Tyler every day and see how he handles his everyday challenges, it really affects me,” Angelo said. “I feel like, OK, I have football five days a week, school five days a week, I work nine hours Saturday and Sunday. There are times I feel like it’s too hard, that I’m too young to be running around 24/7. I have to realize how lucky I am. Tyler can have so much going against him, but he still succeeds so much. It’s inspirational.” Perhaps Angelo tapped into that inspiration early this season. Coach Smith said Angelo was going through some things, wasn’t putting in the kind of focus the coaching staff expected of him. So he wasn’t named one of the team captains for the season opener. That had a huge effect on Angelo, Smith said. He didn’t want to be known as a guy who let his teammates and his program down. By Week 2, Angelo was named a team captain. “He wasn’t named captain because we chose the guys who show the most. After the first week it really hit him that he wasn’t named captain,” Smith said. “He made the biggest turnaround to where we had to name him a captain for Week 2. And we’re not like that. It wasn’t a sympathy thing. We had to name him captain because he turned it around so much, and that just goes along with everything else. He’s that guy you look toward to be a great player on our football team.” Stetser said that having several coaches, including himself, who are special education teachers, made having Tyler on board as an assistant coach very natural. “Coach Smith has him out there blowing the whistle. He’s ‘Coach T.’ And it’s awesome. It makes us all feel good, seeing him light up like that. We’re the coaches and the teachers, and we’re in the role of teaching them. But then you sit back and you see young men showing you something you can learn from as an adult, and that’s really cool,” Stetser said. “And it’s really genuine, too. We didn’t say, ‘hey Angelo, start picking up Tyler.’ (Angelo) asked us if we could start bringing him around more and I said absolutely, that’s what we want. I’m a special education teacher, so it wasn’t even a question. “We really are trying to build this thing into a community program and that means everybody. When we go down to the younger levels we don’t just say hey, we want your top guys. We tell them we want all of you. We want all Egg Harbor Township kids to be a part of something bigger and they are buying into it.” What makes Stetser most proud, he said, is that the adults involved in the program had nothing to do with making this the best year of Tyler’s life. That was all Angelo’s doing. “I know winning is important, but it’s not lip service when we say we want these kids to become better people and members of their community,” Stetser said. “It really makes you feel good to see that, and it makes you feel even better to see them doing good things on their own without being directed. That’s what you want. You want them to be independent and make those decisions on their own. And everybody embraces Tyler. It’s genuine. They love him to death. Every time he is out here they are fist-bumping and yelling, ‘come on, Coach T, blow the whistle!’ It’s really cool.” Team MVP There certainly will be plenty of options when it comes time for picking a team MVP at the end of this season. Dante Moore and Rob Coursey have had outstanding years at the runningback position, Spenser LaSure has made acrobatic catches at wide receiver nearly every single game. And Angelo has been one of the best defensive linemen in the league. But don’t be surprised if Tyler Millett’s name pops up at the end-of-the-season banquet. Angelo said he has been a huge part of keeping up the team’s morale when the going got tough during a brutal stretch in their schedule in the middle of the season when a couple of losses knocked them out of playoff contention. “I think it’s the other way around. I think he’s actually there for us. When we are down and things aren’t going our way, we can look over to the sideline and see Tyler out there. It just really pushes us. No matter how bad things are we can’t give up. That’s really how it has been since he has been out there,” Angelo said. “It’s something none of us take for granted now. We know that any play could be our last play. We are blessed to be fortunate enough to play this game. You couldn’t ask for a better team. Everybody was so accepting. (Tyler) runs our static drills when we warm up. He doesn’t need me to hang around with him, all the guys love him.” “I know they have known each other for a long time, and him bringing Tyler out here is great for the team. It’s brought a feeling of togetherness around here, and that’s a great feeling. It shows that we are all really a family. They are as close to brothers as you can get,” McGrail said. “It’s great getting to know Tyler and seeing how they are together. It’s very unlikely that they would become friends. They’re the odd couple. But it’s a great thing to have. “It shows that there are no bounds to what anyone can do. My dad is deaf. It’s not really a disability because I’ve been around it. But it shows that everyone can do something. No matter what cards you have been dealt, there’s always something more you can do. There are no limits to how far you can take it.” And Angelo said graduating from high school in June won’t affect his friendship with Tyler. “We have a lot more to accomplish, me and him,” Angelo said. “He has a good message and he really needs that spotlight to put it out there.” Contact Dave O’Sullivan: sully@acglorydays.com; on twitter @GDsullysays [adsense]

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