Nearly three years ago, I wrote a heartwarming story about the friendship formed between Zach Hirsch and Graham Jackson.
At the time, Hirsch was an 18-year-old, two-sport standout athlete attending St. Charles North while Jackson was a 14-year-old searching to find his identity as a high school freshman.
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One December day, Hirsch, who had noticed Jackson sitting by himself in the school cafeteria, decided to join him at his lunchroom table.
Believe me, it's not an everyday occurrence that a senior willingly eats lunch across the table from a freshman, especially one who has autism -- specifically, Asperger's syndrome.
However, that is exactly what happened as Hirsch and Jackson met again the next day for lunch -- and continued throughout the rest of the 2008-09 school year.
In December of 2009, their story hit the national stage as Hirsch and Jackson were featured on the Today show in New York City.
Admittedly, I didn't get through the segment without a few tissues.
A few weeks ago, I decided it was time to put together a "Where Are They Now" column about the pair.
Hirsch is currently attending Nebraska, where he is a member of the Cornhuskers baseball team.
Last Sunday, the 6-foot-4, 220-pound redshirt sophomore pitcher improved his record to 4-2 during Nebraska's doubleheader sweep of Ohio State in Columbus.
The left-hander allowed 2 runs on 7 hits over 6 innings while earning his second Big 10 victory.
Hirsch, who has pitched a team-leading 512⁄3 innings, owns a 4.53 ERA with 30 strikeouts and just 12 walks in 10 starts.
Pretty good numbers for a guy who wasn't expected to be a weekend starting pitcher this spring after undergoing elbow (Tommy John) surgery in February of 2010.
"This is the best I've felt in a while," said Hirsch, who compiled a 2.04 ERA as a reliever on a limited basis last season.
Sitting out the 2010 campaign and working diligently to return to the mound wasn't easy for Hirsch, who went 17-5 with a 0.99 ERA during his three-year varsity career at St. Charles North.
"My first two years here were tough in a lot of ways," said Hirsch. "It was a lot more demanding from a mental standpoint than a physical one. There were some games that I had no idea where the ball was going when it left my hand. It was frustrating because I always prided myself on having good control."
With the help of Hirsch, Nebraska (25-13, 7-5) has excelled this season under the direction of first-year head coach/former Major League player Darin Erstad.
"I love playing for Coach Erstad and have a lot of respect for him," said Hirsch, a finance major who earned First Team Academic All-Big 12 honors in 2011.
Meanwhile, Jackson, who will turn 18 on April 25, has continued to make great strides the past three years at St. Charles North.
In addition to serving as the varsity baseball team manager since freshman year, he has been a member of the North Stars marching band, performing at varsity football games and appearing in several seasonal parades in downtown St. Charles.
"I really liked being on the football field on Friday nights," said Jackson, who has played the baritone since fifth grade.
What is Jackson's favorite memory as varsity baseball team manager?
"My sophomore year was the best because we won conference that year," said Jackson.
Next month, he'll graduate as a member of the Class of 2012.
"It doesn't seem possible that this is my senior year," said Jackson. "It's hard to believe."
Leaving a school he loves will be a little difficult but for good reasons, according to his mother, Melissa, who is a Program Supervisor for Mid-Valley Special Education Cooperative in St. Charles.
"He's got much more attachment to school and a feeling of belonging now than he did before because of the kids," said his mom. "He has had some amazing, tremendous experiences in high school.
"Two of the best things that have happened to Graham are band and baseball," added Melissa, who thanked the many teachers, coaches and former students at St. Charles North, including Jim Stombres, Todd Genke, Jim Richardson, Terry Ayers, Tom Poulin, Rob Prentiss, Travis Misner, and Chris Conrad, along with Bartlett basketball/softball coach Jim Wolfsmith.
"Baseball has provided some of the best possible experiences for him because of the ups and downs involved in the game. These are great life lessons."
Jackson finds himself in the dugout with some familiar faces this season.
"It's a little different dynamic for him because these are his peers," said his mom. "He has basically known Clayton Schmitt all his life, and he went to Wild Rose with Erik Nelson. He's got Nick Gilmore in his PE class."
Over the past few years, Jackson has grown in more ways than just the 7 inches of height he has added (he now stands 5-9).
"He recently said that he hopes 'they find someone to replace me,'" said his mom. "It has been much more than the team manager -- it has been a powerful experience for him. And he hopes someone else will be able to experience some of the things he has been fortunate enough to have had.
"Being able to express his feelings shows tremendous insight."
While their conversations have been less frequent than a few years back, Hirsch and Jackson remain friends.
"He keeps in contact with Graham," Melissa said of Hirsch. "They're both pretty busy but he always makes time for Graham."
A couple weeks ago, Graham and his family got an opportunity to watch Hirsch in action as Nebraska faced Northwestern in Evanston.
"It was real good to see him and his family," said Hirsch, who will likely get his next start on the mound Sunday when the Cornhuskers host Big Ten-leading Purdue. "We'll talk on the phone from time to time. It's really nice to see how he has matured. He's a smart kid."
Jackson, who plans on getting his driver's license this summer, will attend Elgin Community College next fall.
"He's a wonderful math and science student," said his mom. "He's a meticulously detail-oriented person who loves computers. His passion is sports. It is so entertaining for me to watch him interact with my dad (John)."
Jackson's high school experiences have been enriched thanks in part to an unselfish gesture made by Hirsch three years ago in the cafeteria.
"I think Zach helped me out," said Graham.
There's no disputing that.
"It's a very humbling experience to be on the receiving end of a miracle," said Melissa. "That's exactly what it is.
"Graham is the luckiest boy I know."