Becoming A Star In A Year, Dealing With Aspergers For Life

Fernando Morales Jr. quickly became one of top track and field athletes in Texas during the 2020 track and field season

photo credit: More or Less Photography

Perception of what we think makes the perfect athlete may not fit into one category. In meeting Fernando "Fernie" Morales, the El Paso Franklin senior has broken that stereotypical "track star" mentality. He is a special young man with a gift that has touched more than just his family. He is an athlete with Aspergers.

What is Aspergers? It is a developmental disorder that affects the ability to socialize and understand non verbal communication, along with needing repetition. It is on the autism spectrum and there are about 200,000 cases per year in the U.S. alone. According to his mom Melisa, it had it's obstacles and was a huge learning experience for them. They knew nothing about this disorder or what caused it. His parents knew he was different, for example when he was younger if he did not accomplish what he set out to do, he would have a meltdown.

The turning point in their search for the truth came when Fernie was in 5th grade and the family went to visit mom's best friend over the Thanksgiving holiday. Mom talked and cried over her struggles to help Fernie succeed with her best friend, the friend who is a special education teacher said she suspected he had Asperger's. She showed them literature she had on Asperger's and mom said, "I just cried and cried and cried because we finally had our answer."

Related: National Institute of Mental Health - Autism Spectrum Disorder

They took him to a behavioral psychologist for testing and were astounded by how spot on the diagnosis was for Fernie. When they read up on it, his dad Fernando said, "Wow who wrote a book about Junior," because it was textbook Fernie. They fought with the school for years over what the issue was with his learning disabilities. The school thought it was comprehension issues or even speech due to the speed at which Fernie talks because his mind is constantly running, but mom and dad knew better because of the fact that Fernie could recite an entire movie forwards and backwards adding in all sound effects and other aspects when asked.

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It's recommended, to not put children with Aspergers in positions where they are set up to fail and be overwhelmed; activities like swim lessons or karate lessons are encouraged. But, growing in Texas, Fernie didn't want to swim or take karate lessons. He had the same desires that many boys growing up in Texas have; he wanted to play football.

Mom was apprehensive about letting Fernie compete in high school sports due to the unknown of what causes Asperger's and since it was football he first competed in, she wondered if it would result in more issues with it being a full contact sport. He soon transitioned to track and when asked why he switched from football to track he said he's always loved football but couldn't see himself doing it long term and running was something that he'd always done because he could never sit still. He said, "it's been a hard road going from football to track, but honestly there is no easy road. The only road that's easy is the one where you cheat yourself and sometimes you just have to push yourself to be better." He knows that being Autistic is just a small part of who he is, not the whole picture. 

photo credit: More or Less Photogrpahy

When he first joined the high school track team, the social aspect was very difficult for him due to the fact that everyone had been running together for years and he didn't know anyone. Fernie said, "it's really hard for kids like me, it's hard for us to get out and communicate with people, how do we relate, what can we say. Those are the things that run through our heads." He also didn't think the other kids would be able to relate to him, but he knew the importance of finding common ground with someone on the team whether it was talking about physics or Batman. He knew he had to continue casting the net wider in order to meet more people that he might have things in common with no matter how small the topic.

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Those friendships and relationships have been made in a short amount of time. It's only been a year since Fernie took track seriously and began to put his focus into it. In that time, he has come to know his teammates well and they have come to know him well also.

They are all aware of how focused he is and how intense his training habits are. Franklin's boys and girls teams are also familiar with him for his comical side and his joking manner.

As of the last calendar year, his teammates know how good Fernie is on the track. Last year, many in El Paso became aware of it and in this shortened 2020 season, many in the state of Texas are now aware.

Freshman year, Fernie started out in the jumps and the 400m while still splitting time with football. He jumped 16-1.75 and 40-8 in the long and triple jump events and got down to 53.60 in the 400m. When his sophomore season came around, Fernie focused more on the 400m, eventually running as fast as 50.97. The difference maker in everything, is when he picked up the 800m as a junior. He ran the event at the start of the season running a 2:04.24, which is nothing special for a junior. However, when district came around, he ran it again, going 1:56.81 and placing fifth. The time was great, but the race was frustrating; it came down to four guys all within a second of one another. His fifth place didn't allow him to move on to the area meet and his season was finished.

That is when the decision to quit football and focus on running was made. The coaching staff saw how his success in the 800m was a positive and suggested he run cross country this season to become stronger for the 800m during senior year.

"I want to defy stigmas and expectations for everyone who has Aspergers; I want to show both people as well as those with Autism that there are people just like them who are participating and excelling in sports and all aspects of life and they can do it too."

Fernando Morales, El Paso Franklin senior

Practices during the summer, putting in mileage, and taking care of his body became the focus. Becoming a better half miler was the goal. However, that would produce more gains and it developed a far better runner with range than anyone could see coming.

Fernie developed into one of the top cross country runners in the highly competitive El Paso distance running scene. He had an impressive first and only cross country season by running by qualifying for the UIL 6A State Cross Country meet where he finished 18th overall in 15:16.52. 

When cross country season ended, that turned the focus to what all of that hard work had been geared for - the 2020 track and field season.

Fernie started things off better this year than where he finished his junior season. His first 800m race was a PR (1:55.78) and then so was his second race (1:54.38). Although, his senior year is now a shortened season due to the Caronavirus (COVID-19), he has developed into one of the more versatile runners in Texas. He is ranked No. 5 in the state in the 800m and has run PRs of 4:22.16 in the 1600m and 9:26.71 in the 3200m.

Morales is ranked in the Top 25 in three events for the 2020 Texas track and field season

photo credit: More or Less Photography

That success is partly due to talent and hard work, but it is also partly due to his Aspergers.

According to dad, with a regular athlete, the frustration for not accomplishing something is just that frustration and ends a minute or two after the race. With Fernie, it doesn't stop there. His frustration is on a whole new level. They are talking about it long after they've gotten home reanalyzing the race and assuring him it's ok. Fernie is getting better about letting things go that bother him with his running and knows if he didn't hit the time he wanted, he'll do it next time. Mom and dad are always encouraging him to beat his time, compete with himself, and not worry about others. They are helping him to learn that life goes on and you don't have to be perfect. His parents just want him to be the best version of himself. They are his biggest cheerleaders. Fernie said, "a common misconception for kids with Asperger's is that they think they have to be better than someone when really they just have to be better than themselves athletically and just overall."

Coach Laspada is also rooting for Fernie's success. He stated how special Fernie is because he "buys in" and does everything they ask him to do and he's very coachable. He said, "Fernie is one of those kids that doesn't do anything halfway, he always gives 100%." From a coaching standpoint with the Asperger's, they know there has to be a plan for him as well as having everything laid out. They discuss the entire week with him before they do an actual workout so that he knows what to expect. 

Laspada also tells stories of how Fernie hits splits on the head like a bulls eye on some of the hardest workouts and even race strategies when they've agreed to run certain times and splits. It's just how he's wired. It's the challenge that intrigues him.

It's also the overall goal that drives Fernie to push towards excellence. He isn't just running for himself; he is running for everyone who has Aspergers and others on the Autism spectrum. "I want to defy stigmas and expectations for everyone who has Aspergers; I want to show people as well as those with Autism that there are people just like them who are participating and excelling in sports and all aspects of life and they can do it too."

Fernie poses on signing day with Franklin HS coaches

photo credit: More or Less Photography

Another great influence in Fernie's life is Coach Brooks. He commented, "I couldn't be more proud of an athlete I've had. He's easy to coach, he's great to be around, he's a leader." The kids have always called Fernie "The Machine" and coach thinks it fits him perfectly. He's also impressed with how Fernie is growing and feeling more comfortable on the track now. "He just goes and takes over the race," according to Coach Brooks. He feels the future is bright for Fernie since he doesn't have a lot of miles on his legs and he'll do exactly what the coaches ask of him. 

Running has been a passion for Fernie and something he knew he wanted to pursue in college while getting his degree in Physical Therapy/Kinesiology. Fernie will be attending the University of Oklahoma in the fall and will be part of their track program. He admits it's a little scary because it's college and you are away from your family for the first time, but he's excited for this new adventure. He stated, "I know it's going to be hard, but being someone with Autism, it's a new challenge I need to take to get further and not hold myself back." Mom and dad know that Fernie is strong and they feel going away to school makes you grow up, see things differently and build's character. They are mentally preparing for this new chapter and already have their crimson and cream spirit gear purchased to cheer him on next year.

Dad says he's his biggest fan and his biggest critic. He said, "I want to see him achieve, I want him to display for other kids that this doesn't restrict you."  He's always told Fernie that Asperger's is a part of you, it doesn't define who you are and doesn't limit what you can or cannot do. Dad summed it up best for how special this young man is when he said with a catch in his voice and overcome with emotion, "it's been a pleasure raising him and he's surpassed all of the expectations we've ever had."