As St. Clairsville fifth grader Mason Thornton has grown up, birthday parties haven't been a big deal.
Usually, he's had just a small party with his family.
However, that all changed this year. When Shelly Thornton asked her son, who was diagnosed with autism at the age of 3, if he had anything special in mind for his birthday this year, she had assumed his response would be the same.
T-L Photo/SETH STASKEY
ST. CLAIRSVILLE fifth grader Mason Thornton celebrated his 12th birthday and standout Red Devils’ athlete Dan Monteroso surprised Thornton, who has autism, by coming to his birthday party. Thornton and Monteroso have become “best friends” this year. Monteroso autographed a football for Thornton.
"We thought a family party, maybe at Chuck E. Cheese's or something," Shelly said.
Mason, who will turn 12 early next month, told his mom that he wanted to have a bowling party with all of his best friends.
"He never believed he had friends before," Shelly said. "Now, he says he's got friends, so he wanted to have a party."
His mom and dad, Mark, were on board immediately for Mason to have a party. So, Shelly began forming the guest list and asked Mason who he wanted to invite to the party.
When he said his best friends, he meant it and had one certain friend in mind.
The first name on his guest list was his "best friend" Dan Monteroso, the Red Devils' senior athletic standout.
"Mason said, 'Dan's my best friend, mom,'" Shelly revealed. "I said, 'well, I don't know, buddy, who else do you want to invite?' I tried to change the subject."
Mason, who loves sports, and Monteroso formed their bond in the fall when Mason's teacher, Dawn Daubenmeyer, brought him and a handful of his teammates to her classroom to speak to her students during the season.
"Dawn brought the boys in to have lunch with the students, take pictures and talk about life lessons," Shelly said. "It really hit home for Mason because his dream is to play football at Ohio State and eventually the Chicago Bears."
While Mason roots for those other players as much as anyone, he really formed a bond with Monteroso. The two-time basketball all-Ohioan and Purdue football signee has become Mason's 'best friend.'
"Mason is our biggest fan," Monteroso said. "He has all of our jerseys, both for football and basketball, comes to every game and you look up in the stands you always see Mason screaming and yelling, so it's a honor to be able to help him out in any way possible."
After the Red Devils defeated Harrison Central in the regular season, Monteroso brought the 'Coal Bucket' over to Mason, letting him hold it and posing for pictures with him. He also rode on the team float during a parade leading up to the Union Local game. The two also eat lunch together occasionally and Dan walked Mason back to his class after he became upset during physical education.
"It's the little things that Dan's done for him that are so impressive to us," Shelly said. "It's not so much his on-the-field play, but he really loves it."
Shelly and her husband Mark sincerely believe that their son's bond with Monteroso has been a major factor in causing Mason to become more involved with his friends and more social.
"I was scared to death for him going into the fifth grade at the middle school," Shelly said. "But, Dan has really helped to make him feel more comfortable in school just through their relationship. Dan isn't just a star on the field, but he's great in the classroom, he's humble and he's great with the younger kids, who really look up to him."
Wanting to make sure she invested every effort into trying to get Monteroso to attend the party, Shelly reached out to Daubenmeyer to see if she thought it was possible.
"I asked Dawn if she thought Dan would do it and she thought about me asking him," Shelly said. "She said if it didn't work out they'd do something in the school when they're eating lunch together."
Daubenmeyer did her part and asked Monteroso, who didn't hesitate in saying yes and admitted to being flattered. They decided they wanted to make it a surprise. Shelly was informed that Dan wouldn't be able to make it, but she was appreciative of the effort.
"I told Mason that Dan was probably going to be on vacation out of town since it was spring break," Shelly said. "Mason wasn't upset."
The surprise worked like a charm. Daubenmeyer and Monteroso met outside of the St. C. Lanes Thursday afternoon and headed in for the party, making Mason's day even more special.
"It was a big surprise, but I definitely like that kind of surprise," Mason said. "It's great to have all of my friends here. I am their friend and they're my friends, too."
When Shelly saw Monteroso and Daubenmeyer walk in, she broke down into tears.
"Dawn did this," Shelly said. "Mason really doesn't understand the whole idea of having Dan at the party. To him, he's just another guy ... his best friend."
Mason and Monteroso had their own lane to bowl in and according to Monteroso, Mason dominated on the scoreboard.
"For all of the support Mason has given me and our teams, (coming to this party) is the least I could do," Monteroso said. "I didn't even think about saying no."
The surprises weren't quite finished, though. Just before Monteroso was leaving, he gave Mason his gift.
"Dan is probably going to go down as one of the greatest athletes to ever come out of St. Clairsville, but he's not just that," Mark said. "He's a first-class kid."
Mason's eyes grew bigger and bigger as he pulled out an official, game-used St. C. football that Monteroso had autographed for him.
"This really means a lot to me to be invited to this and means a lot that Mrs. Daubenmeyer would even think about asking me," Monteroso said. "All of the things this community has done for me and our whole football and basketball teams means a lot. I just want to represent the school as best I can."
Mason is well aware that Monteroso leaves for Purdue in a few months, but he's OK with that, according his mom.
"I like it when Dan makes a score for the Red Devils," Mason said. "Since, he's going to Purdue, and I am a fan of the Buckeyes, I came up with a plan. I am going to make Purdue my second favorite team and keep the Buckeyes at the top because I don't like to bandwagon."
As big a Monteroso fan as Mason is, he won't put the Boilmakers over the Buckeyes on his list of favorite teams. He's hoping Monteroso scores several touchdowns, but OSU still prevails when the teams meet in the coming years.
Monteroso, who was razzing Mason about the OSU shirt he was wearing instead of a Purdue shirt, plans on making it a point to keep in touch with him when he's away at school.
"I plan on calling him after games and hopefully, he can get to a couple of games," Monteroso said.
Along with the help of the players, Shelly also lauded the work and help of St. C. Athletic Director Kelly Rine, head football coach Brett McLean and equipment manager Chris Patrone as big influences for Mason.
This birthday will be one that Mason Thornton won't ever forget. And he'll be rooting like crazy for Monteroso the next four years at Purdue, but not even a Heisman Trophy would sway him from his beloved Buckeyes.
Staskey can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org