ANDERSON COUNTY — Wren High School quarterback Kelly Bryant can hardly swim.
So on a recent afternoon, his friend Tanner Duniho, who medaled in backstroke at the state Special Olympics, took him to the pool to show him how to stay above water.
Relax your mind, Tanner told him, and remember to kick your legs.
Duniho, a student with Down syndrome, and Kelly, a quarterback who has verbally committed to Clemson University, struck up a friendship this year that has made the school take notice. Students Tanner doesn’t know wave to him as he walks down the hall, said his mother, Paula Duniho. Kelly’s football and basketball teammates eat lunch with Tanner and his friends when their schedules overlap.
“They’ve crossed every boundary,” Paula Duniho said.
The two teens met at an orientation before the school year began. Tanner, who just finished ninth grade, was entering high school. Kelly, who just finished his junior year, had just transferred to Wren High in Piedmont.
Paula Duniho saw Kelly and jokingly said to her son, “Look, there’s a big guy, he can watch over you.”
Kelly saw Tanner at lunch a few weeks later. Kelly was new to the school and didn’t have many friends outside the football team, he said, so he and Tanner sat together.
Soon, his teammates began joining him.
“We just treat them like us,” Kelly said. “They’re the same as us.”
Tanner and his father went to every football game last fall and many basketball games, and Kelly attended Tanner’s swimming meets. At lunch, Tanner stays in his seat and makes Kelly sit with him, then sweet-talks Kelly into throwing out his trash. When Kelly raps, Tanner lays down the beat.
Tanner is part of a special education program at Wren and doesn’t often cross paths with Kelly outside lunch. Hanging out together requires some advance planning, but the boys make it work, Paula Duniho said.
At Tanner’s pool, Tanner and his mother showed Kelly how to zoom across the pool using a kickboard. Tanner learned to swim as soon as he was old enough, his mother said.
When Kelly tried to swim with the kickboard, he went backward.
Think of football, Tanner told him.
It seemed normal to Kelly to hang out with Tanner, telling jokes and coming up with a secret handshake. Kelly grew up in Abbeville with a cousin with special needs, and the two of them would play basketball and bike together, Kelly said.
For Paula Duniho, Tanner’s friendship with Kelly is special.
“People look at Tanner and think, they might not understand what a sincere friendship means,” she said.
Though Tanner sometimes struggles with his speech, Kelly has no problem understanding him. Kelly helped Tanner feel part of something bigger than himself, Paula Duniho said. He helped Tanner feel cool.
“Kelly saw past his disability, and saw Tanner,” Paula Duniho said.
Wren football coach Jeff Tate has not seen a friendship such as Tanner’s and Kelly’s in his 35 years in education, he said. Many of the students in Tanner’s special education program high-five the athletes in the hall, and they all know each other by name, Tate said.
“Kelly is who he is,” Tate said. “There’s not anything fake about him.”
Tate had planned for Tanner to become a trainer or equipment manager next school year, but Tanner will not attend Wren High School. His program was moved to Powdersville High School, and his mother says she will likely home-school Tanner.
Tate, who attended church with the Dunihos when Tanner was younger, said Tanner’s parents encouraged him to be active from a young age.
Tate talked with Paula Duniho about having Tanner monitor the players’ equipment, water, sunscreen and hats. Tate was sure Tanner would take care of any group Kelly was part of, he said.
“Probably, on the sidelines, he’d be the biggest cheerleader,” Tate said. “And we’d have to pull him off the field.”
Kelly helped circulate a petition to keep Tanner’s program at Wren but was unsuccessful. He got about 150 signatures for the petition in 15 minutes, he said.
The Dunihos plan to continue going to Wren football games in the fall and will likely watch Kelly at Clemson as well, Paula Duniho said.
Kelly said he will try to see Tanner as much as possible next year, but it will be different.
“Everyone loves him,” Kelly said. “I don’t see how you can’t love him.”
Follow Sarah Freishtat on Twitter @srfreish