2014-03-14 / Front Page

South Portland father to walk from Fenway to Hadlock

By Duke Harrington
Contributing Writer

Justin LeBlanc and his son Theo, of South Portland, pose Tuesday with Slugger the Sea Dog at Hadlock Field in Portland. Although empty now, the stadium will be full of fans May 8 when LeBlanc and Slugger, in full costume, arrive after walking 114 miles from Fenway Park in Boston to raise money and awareness for Tourette’s Syndrome.(Duke Harrington photo) Justin LeBlanc and his son Theo, of South Portland, pose Tuesday with Slugger the Sea Dog at Hadlock Field in Portland. Although empty now, the stadium will be full of fans May 8 when LeBlanc and Slugger, in full costume, arrive after walking 114 miles from Fenway Park in Boston to raise money and awareness for Tourette’s Syndrome.(Duke Harrington photo) SOUTH PORTLAND — They say you can’t go home again, but Justin LeBlanc of South Portland hopes to disprove that notion this May when he walks 114 miles from Fenway Park in Boston to Hadlock Field in Portland to raise money and awareness for Tourette’s syndrome, a neurobiological disorder with which his son, Theo, struggles on a daily basis.

The goal of the four-day, multi-state walk-a-thon — held to celebrate Slugger’s 20th birthday and LeBlanc’s role as the popular mascot’s first “trainer” — is to raise $20,000 for Camp Twitch and Shout, located in Dunwoody, Ga., which organizes week-long excursions for children ages 7 to 17 diagnosed with Tourette’s. Money raised from the walk also will go to the Tourette’s Syndrome Association to support its Youth Ambassador Program, which Theo LeBlanc hopes to join as soon as he is old enough, in order to help “demystify” his affliction.

“It’s a neurological disorder with a chemical imbalance in your mind,” said Theo, during Tuesday’s press conference at Hadlock Field, held to announce the upcoming walk, proving that he already has the education piece down cold.

And, as readily as Theo can explain what Tourette’s is, he just as easily says what it is not. For example, he notes, it is not the disease that exists in the popular consciousness, in which people scream out swear words at inappropriate moments.

“Less than 10 percent of people with Tourette’s do that,” he said. “For me, it’s a thing where I clear my throat a lot, and that interrupts my speech. And then I move in ways that I can’t control.

“What’s hardest is this particular tic I have where all my muscles seize up and I make a loud chirp, like, ‘Yip!’” said Theo. “That’s hard because people think I’m doing it on purpose to get attention.”

Instead, what Theo does for attention — because, he says, he “likes to be around people” — is to perform magic tricks. Theo spent much of Tuesday’s press event regaling reporters with his slight-of-hand technique, displaying mastery impressive even in an adult, and one not prone to uncontrollable muscle spasms, at that.

LeBlanc said he is awed at the focus and concentration it takes for his son to do magic while controlling bodily tics and involuntary vocalizations. He fully supports Theo’s goal to prestidigitate on a professional level one day. But today, he said, is all about making the world a place that can accept his son’s differences.

Throughout Theo’s elementary school career, his mother Hope gave talks about Tourette’s to his classmates at the start of each grade. That helped, but the LeBlancs know their son is now entering a time of transition. The 11-yearold will transfer next year from South Portland’s Brown Elementary School to Mahoney Middle School, and that means the beginning of a process all children go through, of finding a place in the wider world after a childhood of shelter and care. It can be a difficult time for anyone, but even more so for someone who is evidently different.

“I’m nervous as a father,” said LeBlanc, 43. “The teachers and staff at Brown Elementary have been amazing and very supportive. But this is a condition that’s not really well known and can be difficult to see.”

“I worry about when he gets into the older grades, being teased and bullied,” he said. “So, this past year has sort of been a year to, if not embrace Tourette’s, to do something about it. If I can get the word out, and people can understand that he sometimes flails and he makes noises and he can’t help it, that’s what this is all about.”

With that goal in mind, LeBlanc trained through much of 2013 to run the inaugural Dopey Challenge, a series of four runs – a 5K, a 10K, a half-marathon and a full marathon – staged over four days at Walt Disney World in Florida. LeBlanc and his sister, Anne Davis of Falmouth, completed all 50 miles on Jan. 12, raising more than $10,000 for the Tourette’s Syndrome Association ambassadorship program.

One reason for that run, LeBlanc said, is that there are few support groups for Tourette’s, other than the Twitch and Shout camp, and none at all locally. He’s not even sure if anyone else in South Portland has the condition. According to Superintendent Suzanne Godin, the school district does not track that information, so she has no way of knowing herself, although Theo does receive speech therapy at Brown Elementary.

Data collected by the Centers for Disease Prevention and Control shows that Tourette’s, which is three times more common in boys than girls, is diagnosed in three of every 1,000 children aged 6 to 17 — or about 148,000 children, nationally.

To help further public education on the disease, LeBlanc decided that, with 50 miles under his belt, another 114 should be a piece of cake. And so, he was eager and willing when approached by the Sea Dogs, for whom he worked from 1994- 1996, about joining forces.

LeBlanc, a Portland native and Cheverus High School graduate, was fresh out of the University of Vermont and working as director of Portland’s Habitat for Humanity chapter in 1994, when he answered an ad to “train” the mascot for his hometown’s brand new minor league baseball team.

Having parlayed his experience on the men’s gymnastics team into cavorting through his last two years of college as school mascot Charlie the Catamount, LeBlanc was well suited to launch the career of Sea Dogs mascot, Slugger the Sea Dog.

The character, based on the team logo created by cartoonist Guy Gilchrist, which in turn was based on the winning entry in a name-the-team contest that drew more than 600 submissions, almost failed to make the Sea Dogs roster.

“The legend is that the general manager, or the team owner, or someone high up at the time, didn’t even want a mascot,” said LeBlanc. “At any rate, I don’t think anyone realized how successful Slugger would become. It certainly wasn’t in the plans that he would become almost the face of the organization.”

In a July 1995 article in the Hartford Courant, Sea Dogs General Manager Charles Eshbach reported that team paraphernalia was outselling every other minor league team in the country, topping $1 million and nearly 30 percent of gross team revenue — far above the 5 percent norm. With the team barely a year into active play at that point, orders for Slugger swag had already been filled in all 50 states and at least five foreign countries, Eshbach said.

“Most mascots have a certain level of success, regardless,” LeBlanc said, “but if there was an ‘a-ha moment,’ it was late in that first year when it became clear the team was willing to be flexible to promote what we were doing. By the second year, we had dedicated time during the game when we could do silly stuff. And then the merchandising of Slugger stuff just took off.”

Free to shape Slugger’s on-field persona, LeBlanc created the Kung-Fu fighting umpire routine, as well as the steal-thevendor’s biscuit bit, both skits that remain popular with young fans.

“One of our biggest attractions is Slugger and Justin’s work as a trainer was huge,” said current General Manager Geoff Iacuessa. “It made a world of difference and really helped to make Slugger who he is today.”

LeBlanc left the team in 1996 to pursue a law degree and today he runs LeBlanc and Young, a small estate-planning firm in Portland. However, his life took a dramatic turn several years ago when Theo was diagnosed with Tourette’s syndrome.

“Up until that point in time, Tourette’s, in my mind, was just the punchline to a bad joke,” LeBlanc said. “I’ve since come to realize that it’s anything but a joke. It is a serious, inherited neurobiological condition. So, when the opportunity came to work with Slugger and the Sea Dogs again, and given the charitable nature of this event, I literally jumped at the opportunity.”

“Slugger was a diamond in the rough when he first arrived in Portland, in real need of coaching,” said Iacuessa. “It was Justin who spent hours upon hours teaching him how to drive an ATV, how to dance, how to high five and, most importantly, how to run the bases.

“Their efforts have been enjoyed by millions of fans over the past 20 seasons and we’re confident Justin can get Slugger whipped into shape in the 54 days we have until the walk,” said Iacuessa, noting that it was press coverage of LeBlanc’s Dopey Challenge run that enticed the team to get back in touch.

“I think Slugger is a little overwhelmed, but he’s excited about this challenge,” said Assistant General Manager Chris Cameron. “Slugger hasn’t failed at too much in his career, other than his race around the bases, thanks to Justin.”

Theo admits that baseball is not his favorite sport and that, as a young child, he was actually a little afraid of his father’s first protégé. In fact, he actually hid under a blanket at their first meeting, on a family outing to Hadlock several years ago.

Today, however, he’s able to embrace Slugger in a press conference hug, although he’s quick to pull out his magic supplies while Slugger mimes trepidation about the upcoming walk.

As he gives a flick of the wrist, making a sponge ball jump out of his hand and into the clenched fist of a reporter, Theo shows that, like Slugger, he’s learned a thing or two from his father about entertaining a crowd. Asked how he feels about his dad’s 114-mile walk, following on the heels of a 50-mile run, all done on behalf of children just like him, Theo breaks into a broad grin.

“My dad is crazy,” he says. “Crazy and awesome.”

Be a part of the story

Slugger the Sea Dog and his first trainer, Justin LeBlanc of South Portland, will leave the warming track at Fenway Park in Boston at noon on Sunday, May 4, just before that day’s Red Sox game against the Oakland Athletics. After walking 114 miles, they are scheduled to arrive at Hadlock Field in Portland for Slugger’s 20th birthday party on Thursday, May 8, just before the 6 p.m. first pitch in the Sea Dogs game against the New Hampshire Fisher Cats. Tickets for that game, as well as donations to the Tourette’s Syndrome Association in support of the walk, can be purchased online at www.seadogs.com.

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