GARNER — Even though the football team provided plenty of reason to cheer in a 62-21 victory over West Johnston, the loudest roar from the crowd at Garner Magnet High School’s homecoming game might not have come for a touchdown or a turnover, the loudest chanted name not that a football player.
The announcement of Hunter Lesslie as homecoming king at halftime sent Garner fans into a frenzy. The student known for bowling, leading cheers at football games, an infectious personality and bringing Mountain Dew to school had been honored in front of thousands.
“It was really kind of heartwarming. I got chills when they called his name. And the crowd, I’ve never heard an uproar like that,” Lesslie’s father, Scott, said.
Hunter Lesslie has Down syndrome, but that hasn’t prevented him from holding down a job, having a long-term girlfriend, a vibrant social life and place in the hearts of many at the school.
When his name was announced during the Oct. 4 halftime presentation, Lesslie excitedly moved to the stage.
“I was excited. I ran over there,” Lesslie said. “I was the king.”
The king was crowned and the Blue Crew cheering section began chanting “Hunter Lesslie.” The rest of the crowd soon joined.
“I had grown men that said it brought tears to their eyes. I think that speaks highly of the student body at Garner,” his special ed teacher, Deborah Moore, said. “The student body has accepted and supported him We try not to put boundaries on (special education students).”
Eventually the queen also had to be announced. Senior Ashley Brittain’s name was called, and she, too, took the stage. She didn’t mind that her reception didn’t move the Richter scales as Hunter’s did.
“It was his night. I was very excited,” Brittain said.
Brittain said her favorite part of the night came after she dropped her crown. Lesslie picked it up, put it on her head, and stuck out his arm to escort her to the car before they were ferried around Trojan Stadium.
“Of course the cheer was awesome, but I got a little teary-eyed when he put the crown on my head,” Brittain said.
Brittain said that while many had commented about what the turn of events said about the student body, she saw it the other way around as well.
“It says a lot about Hunter too.”
Election of a king
During the first round of voting, a trio of Garner students – Sarah Hamlin, Courtney Weathersbee and Lacey Castora – decided to nominate Lesslie, 20, and in his fifth year at Garner High School, for homecoming king. The students had worked with Lesslie through an elective where they work in class with special education students.
“He’s very well-known around the school. Once me, Lacy and Courtney put his name down, everybody knew,” said Hamlin, who first got to know Lesslie years ago through the YMCA.
Word spread on social media. Twitter promotions popped up. It all led to the coronation of a king – one to whom other students had to explain the concept of homecoming king during the nominating process.
“He was very ecstatic about what was going on. You could tell he was very excited,” Scott Lesslie said.
And while Hunter Lesslie said his favorite parts included the cheer and the crown, his father suggested it was really the ladies.
“We couldn’t get more than 10 feet without someone wanting to get a picture,” Scott Lesslie said.
“Guilty,” quipped Weathersbee.
While his father may have been touched, he wasn’t necessarily surprised.
“He’s a genius. He has some little uncanny ability of sucking you into his world,” Scott Lesslie said.
Hunter participates in the bowling club. (Weathersbee said he had recently beaten her in bowling.) He works two nights a week at the Chargrill at White Oak; his father said the owner will tell anyone who asked why he hired Lesslie: “Because he asked for a job.”
He also has been a presence around the football and cheerleading teams, leading cheers and hobnobbing with coaches during warmups.
“Football coaches would come up to him in warmups and say ‘Hunter, what’s going on?’” Scott Lesslie said. “(During the game) somehow or another he walks away from us, he ends up on the field, pompoms in his hands, holding signs up, and I’m going ‘Really?’”
“Dad!” Hunter Lesslie interjects with typical high-school embarrassment and irritation at a parent that said too much.
Another topic capable of eliciting such a response: his girlfriend. They’ve been a steady couple 10 years. Hunter has known Dora Gonsalez since fifth grade, (“Dora is my baby,” he said) and their relationship resembles any other in the eyes of those around them.
“Special needs not withstanding, they go through the same trials and tribulations as any other couple,” Scott Lesslie said. “They have their fights. ... There’s a little extra ego on Hunter’s part. He doesn’t like saying ‘I’m sorry.’”
“DADDY!” Hunter objected.
“I don’t know where he gets it,” Scott Lesslie continued after a chuckle.
Hunter Lesslie wants to be a school principal someday. He will spend a sixth year at Garner High, and will tell you he’s going to college in Greensboro. His father said he could send him to the Beyond Academics program at UNC-Greensboro, one designed to better equip those with special needs for independent living.
In the meantime, Hunter will continue to live up high school. As he walks down the hall, a Garner police officer assigned to the school bows to the king with a smile on his face. Dora bursts excitedly out of the cafeteria, running to Hunter, and they embrace.
Jahner: 919-829-4822; Twitter: @garnercleveland