Craig Buckey is more popular than usual Thursdays at 3 p.m. when he picks up 50 chocolate and vanilla milkshakes from Dewar’s and then passes them out to the BHS varsity football team in the parking lot in front of the locker and weight rooms. On Thursdays, Buckey could run for president.

Buckey, 38, is an assistant coach for Paul Golla’s team. He is in charge of the whiteboard on which plays are proposed and discarded, bringing the punishment wheel onto the field (players who are late or have committed some transgression spin the wheel to earn laps, push-ups, butt-downs, sprints and reactors), looking after the down distance markers and the chains, calculating the defensive stats, warming up the linebackers, picking off the play signals and noting the punting tendencies of the opposing team.

If that isn’t enough, Buckey makes a Starbucks run for Coach Golla before practice. Buckey is busy. Buckey is also autistic.

Although he can drive and run errands, he lives with his parents, Mike and Maureen Buckey. Prone to trust too much and give away his money, Buckey requires the protective web of a home.

Coaching has given him a purpose. Buckey will tell you he loves his job (it’s unpaid) and then he will tell you again. Enthusiasm is not a problem here.

“Coaching gives him something to wake up for every day,” said his mother, Maureen.

The Buckeys are an athletic family of note. Maureen’s father was the offensive coach of the Cal Poly football team, the team whose plane crashed on Oct. 29, 1960, near Toledo and killed 16 players (‎26 survived, one being her father).

Buckey's brother, Jeff, played for the Miami Dolphins for three years and one for San Francisco 49ers. Mandy, his older sister, went to Cal on a track scholarship.

Their mother said, “We had kids on both side of the spectrum, two outstanding athletes and then one who never played."

Maureen knew something was different about Craig soon after he was born. He was prone to fits of anger, couldn’t sit up and didn’t walk until he was 20 months. Doctors told them he would outgrow it, but Maureen and Mike were not convinced he would.

At 10, Buckey was diagnosed with autism. His parents kept him in regular classes because he did reasonably well. Buckey played tight end and graduated from BHS in 1999.

Buckey went to BC and graduated with an associate degree in physical education in four years. At BC, head coach Dallas Grider took him under his wing, and later, so did coaches Beau Redstone and Jeff Chudy. Buckey kept stats, set up the field, wheeled out the balls and did cleanup.

Coaches included him. He threw his heart, soul and back into each job. Buckey became less a project than a resource.

When Tim Hartnett, formerly the BHS coach, moved to Golden Valley, Buckey followed him and then accompanied him to Highland. Six years ago, Buckey returned to BHS where he helps with the varsity and JV football teams and and the varsity basketball team.

“Craig played for me when I was coaching at BHS," Hartnett said. “He didn’t start but he came to practice every day. He was a leader and, at the end of the year, he received an award for his hard work and leadership.

“He has overcome many physical obstacles yet he still continues to do what he loves to do. I am happy I still see him on the sidelines pursuing his dreams.”

•••

Buckey is more than an assistant coach. A year ago in August, his mother was diagnosed with Stage 3 breast cancer and, two months later, his father, an architect who works for the Panama-Buena Vista School District, came down with prostate cancer.

Buckey drove them to doctors’ appointments, ran errands and did chores around the house. It was a difficult time for the family because Buckey has his own medical problems associated with autism but the family pulled through. Mike and Maureen are now in remission.

In addition to the coaching, Buckey goes to the library once a week and checks out books on football and autism. He watches Pac 10 games and his four nephews play basketball, football, baseball and soccer. The Buckeys go to church at St. Francis or St. Elizabeth Ann Seton.

“Church is important to Craig,” Maureen said. “If he misses Saturday Mass he goes on Sundays.”

Last Thursday, BHS played Stockdale. Buckey told the coaches that he is undefeated on or close to his birthday. BHS won. It could have been his birthday. It could have been the milkshakes.

Herb Benham is a columnist for the Bakersfield Californian and can be reached at hbenham@bakersfield.com or 661-395-7279.

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