On the football field, Special Olympics athlete Alec Erickson is described as a ninja. He is quiet and calculated with a tendency to come out of nowhere to catch a pass that wasn’t even intended for him.
These qualities were crucial for the Carver County Hawks as they competed for Special Olympics flag football state championships in 2014 and 2015, but even more so for Erickson’s career as he exceeds the expectations set by those around him.
Alec Erickson, bottom right, and his Carver County Hawks teammates won Minnesota's Special Olympics state championship in softball in 2014.
Three days a week, Erickson commutes from his home Bloomington to the Sport Ngin office in northeast Minneapolis via Metro Mobility. Upon arrival he says good morning to his manager Anne Frazer, finds his desk amidst a hornet’s nest of wires and monitors and puts in his earbuds. His daily routine hardly differs from anyone else’s, but is a feat in itself considering his lifelong struggles with overstimulation.
When Erickson was born, he ended up back in hospital with high fever and was prescribed antibiotics that, according to his mother, Wendy, may have caused mild to moderate mental impairment.
Erickson has exhibited characteristics of mild autism his entire life, struggling in situations with high visual or auditory stimulation. At age 10, the noise and bright screen in a movie theater were too much, and he had to exit before the opening credits of 101 Dalmatians. To make things more challenging, Erickson is soft-spoken and refuses to complain, making it tough to tell how he is feeling.
“He wasn’t always able to articulate how he was feeling, and when he was nearing high school I thought there was no way he could have a job like this or be a part of something,” Wendy said. “(His brother) Seth always looks out for him and worried about what was going to happen to Alec after high school.”
My goal is just to have fun and improve, but winning is nice."
- Alec Erickson
While he’s always been hard to predict, Erickson developed a passion for sports and an incredible ability to analyze and memorize sports statistics at an early age. Wendy said he tracks his favorite players, including Minnesota Twin Joe Mauer and Golden State Warrior Steph Curry, through college and into the pros and memorized their stats – even down to shoe sizes.
Erickson began his Special Olympics career with bowling, softball and track events while attending elementary school in Waconia, where he developed his athletic skills but had a tough time developing a social network. Waconia had few students in the special needs program with disabilities levels similar to Alec’s. Wendy said she saw a need to change school districts after Alec invited several people to his 15th birthday party and no one showed up.
The Erickson’s relocated to Edina for Alec’s sophomore year and, after a month of attending Edina High School, he threw a birthday party in which every person invited showed up. Later, he tracked down varsity basketball coach Patrick Dorsey and offered to be the team’s student manager. He didn’t get the job. Instead, Dorsey placed Alec on the roster and gave him duties during games and practices.
“I mostly just gave out water during games, cleaned up water spills on the court and picked up around the court,” Alec said. “But it was fun getting to know the team and being around the action – there was a lot of tall people on the team.”
Name: Alec Erickson | Age: 24
Resides in: Bloomington, Minn.
Family: Parents Wendy and Shannon; brother, Seth; dog, Louie.
Job: Quality Assurance Analyst, Sport Ngin
Interests: Guitar, sports, hanging out with friends and Special Olympics teammates, video games and travel.
Erickson was born in Fargo, North Dakota and showed signs of mild autism from an early age. While he struggled with overstimulation, he developed a passion for sports and a knack for memorizing and analyzing sports statistics. His family briefly lived in St. Bonifacious and Waconia before landing in Edina when Alec was sophomore. At Edina High School, he served as the boy's basketball team manager and played on several adapted sports teams. After graduating in 2010, he entered a three-year transition program at South Education Center and began his Special Olympics career in bowling, softball, basketball and flag football. In 2015, the Carver County Hawks won the Special Olympics state championship and Erickson began his career at Sport Ngin in the Quality Assurance department.
After graduating from Edina in 2010, Alec enrolled in a three-year transition program at South Education Center and worked various jobs at Byerly’s in Edina. Wendy said he was becoming more open to new experiences and continued to grow more independent, but was still dependent on having a routine.
Part of that routine was regular involvement in Special Olympics, especially floor hockey, softball, basketball and flag football. Alec has medaled in Spring Games events and won the state championship in flag football in 2014 due in large part to his speed and soft hands. He also exhibits the intangible skills held in the highest regard by Special Olympics participants.
“Always very astute – aware – of other peoples’ abilities,” Wendy said. “There’s such a mix of physical and mental disabilities and he would never overplay someone else with a more severe disability. He would play to everyone’s abilities to give them a chance to play and contribute, but still win.”
Anita Ward noticed this quality during her two years of coaching Alec and the Carver County Hawks. While Alec is one of the more skilled players on the team and crucial to their success, he is the first to point out when an athlete from either team hasn’t had enough playing time.
Ward’s sons, Paul and Mike Graves, play on the Hawks. Mike is a Unified partner – a non-disabled teammate – that plays for the Hawks and first noticed Alec’s ninja-like qualities. In the final minute of the 2015 state championship, a pass intended for Alec was intercepted and eventually cost the Hawks the lead. On the ensuing possession, Andy threw two more passes to Alec which fell incomplete, and the Hawks lost by two points.
“I can’t say they were disappointed,” Anita said. “If they were, it would have been hard to tell by their reaction. Special Olympics athletes can teach us this lesson: They have a unique ability to be proud of what they’ve accomplished. If it’s second place, third place or first place, they’re always proud they played their best and had fun doing it. That’s a lesson we could all stand to learn.”
Alec Erickson, bottom right, has enjoyed state-level success in multiple Special Olympics sports.
Alec has mentally archived pages of other athlete’s sports statistics, but he tends to diminish the importance of his own. In the 2015 flag football season he believes he caught five touchdown passes in five games. He doesn’t remember the score of the championship game – it just isn’t the most important part of the game to him.
“My goal is just to have fun and improve, but winning is nice,” he said. “I just enjoy going to practices, seeing my teammates, being at the tournaments and just having fun.”
Ward sees Alec as a model Special Olympics athlete because of his gamesmanship and humility. However, the coach said Erickson is unique based on what he has achieved on and off the field.
“I know there were several catches in the corner of the end zone that he just snatched it out of thin air,” Ward said. “Then he comes back and just says ‘Hey, cool’ -- just as nonchalant as anyone can be. I swear he used his fingernails on a few.”
With hands like Chris Carter and humility of Robert Smith, Alec is one of the most skilled athletes Ward has coached. However, it’s what he has achieved off the field that really impresses his coach.
“A lot of the athletes – if they work someplace -- are typically in some sort of an enclave like Opportunity Partners or MRCI WorkSource,” said Ward, whose son Paul is employed such organizations. “The clients go to one of these settings, learn job skills, often bring work into these settings and do assembly and stuff like that. Some kids are able to go to a job setting with a job coach, but for individuals to get passed that and work in a competitive job field that’s supervised in the same way anywhere else is, that’s pretty high level. Very few of these athletes are able to do that.”
Alec’s steady employment and ability to transition through several departments at Byerly’s was impressive in itself, but it was not a sustainable as a long term career. Wendy said he was not able to advance past part-time status and therefore would not be eligible for benefits, which capped his growth toward independence. However, in 2014, the Erickson’s were introduced to Odell Tuttle, Vice President of Engineering at Sport Ngin, who opened a window of opportunity for Alec.
“I just saw a young guy that was more capable of doing what he was doing at the time,” Tuttle said. “We had a lot of people (at Sport Ngin) doing stats entry which would have been in his wheelhouse. We had some routine stuff that senior designers were doing that I knew he could help out with.”
I wish I had twenty more people just like him.”
- Anne Frazer, Sport Ngin Director of Quality Assurance
Last June, Alec sat -- nervously at first -- with three Sport Ngin managers, including Anna Klombies and Pete Anderson, and interviewed for a position in Development as a Development Assistant. As he settled in, it became clear that he was not only capable of doing the job, he was a perfect fit for the sports-centric atmosphere at Sport Ngin.
Tuttle said what began as a trial period quickly evolved into a full-time position. And while members of management believed they had appropriate expectations of what Alec was capable of undertaking, he’s surpassed them and is being challenged with tasks that many Sport Ngin developers struggle with.
Tuttle assigned Alec to Anne Frazer, the Director of Quality Assurance, soon after she started last fall, hoping she could challenge Alec with new tasks like testing software and working on teams. Frazer quickly noticed Alec’s knack for product testing, which she attributes to his musical background and skill as a guitarist.
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Alec insists he’s nothing special on guitar, but he has been playing for a few years and always keeps his phone and headphones close. As soon as he sits down at work, Alec puts his earbuds in, tunes out the swarm of quality assurance workers around him, and focuses on his work.
“I like trying to fix things when they are broken and seeing the different organizations that we work with,” he said. “I do a lot of testing for bugs -- I go through a bunch of applications and test to see if they worked or not, and record whether they passed or failed, but sometimes I’ll be handed a project and work on a team, or Anne will find something for me to do.”
Because he relies on Metro Mobility to get to and from work, Frazer is more concerned about Alec’s production rather than hours worked. Frazer said she is very clear while explaining projects to Alec, but after that, never questions his ability or dedication to his work.
“I wish I had twenty more people just like him,” Frazer said. “He’s learning the application, which is huge, and already knows it better than me.”
While Alec continues to impress Frazer and his Sport Ngin colleagues with quiet dedication and the occasional Special Olympics medal, no one is more surprised, pleased and relieved than his mother. After her son had settled in a Sport Ngin, Wendy was offered a short-term position in Amsterdam through Cargill and, although it was tough to leave her sons, couldn’t find a reason not to accept.
“The opportunity at Sport Ngin has raised the bar which gives me some inspiration for other potential,” Wendy said. “He was living with us at the time and, as a mother, I felt it was a good point to start doing some more things on his own. Live on his own, have a serious girlfriend, children – those are things we never could have imagined years ago, but at this point there’s no reason to believe he can’t do that.”