The struggle has never been with the message itself, but perhaps in the delivery of it.
Her speech is deliberate and measured, sometimes even slurred, but Collette Divitto has never allowed Down Syndrome to garble her message of hope and inspiration. She has always managed to convey it, loud and clear, to her 21-year-old brother, Steele Divitto, a stalwart senior linebacker for Boston College.
“Collette means the world to me,’’ said Steele. “I wouldn’t be the person I am today if it wasn’t for her. I’m so blessed to have her — my entire family is, really.’’
“Steele is my hero,’’ Collette said simply and clearly. “He will always, always be my hero.’’
Through all her struggles, Collette has never been misunderstood.
“Even given her circumstances, she is unbelievably mature,’’ said Steele, who took on the responsibility of role model not only to Collette, 23, but also his 19-year-old sister, Blake, a sophomore at Northeastern, after their parents separated when they were younger.
“She is so caring, selfless, and wants the best for everyone,’’ Steele said of Collette. “By the same token, she has no problems speaking her mind. She says things the way it is. But she truly brings out the best out of people.
“Collette knows every day is more of a challenge for her, but she embraces it. She is so positive and is almost always smiling. She is an unbelievable inspiration. I wake up every day so appreciative of all the opportunities I have in my life and to have Collette.’’
Described by her brother as “extremely organized’’ and “very high functioning’’ with “unbelievable mannerisms,’’ Collette expressed the desire to attend college after she graduated from Ridgefield (Conn.) High in 2010.
When Steele committed to play football at BC, it was thought that Collette might follow him to Boston, where the family researched and visited several schools with special-needs programs.
Just as Steele had done at a pivotal juncture in his life — when he decided to leave home his sophomore year and attend high school in New Jersey to play at Don Bosco Prep — Collette made the bold decision to leave home and attend ClemsonLife, a two-year program at Clemson University that specializes in teaching special-needs students life skills.
She graduated from the program last May, returned home to live with her family in Ridgefield, Conn., and is now looking to strike out on her own again after gaining a measure of independence from her college experience.
“Actually, I really do miss being at Clemson and being part of the ClemsonLife program down there,’’ Collette said. “I actually had a really rich experience down there and learned how to be on my own and to live on my own.’’
“It was, obviously, a little nerve-racking having her be so far away,’’ said Steele. “But it was a great step in her life.’’
Challenge of college
This weekend, Collette will return to her alma mater with her mother and visit with friends and instructors in the program. On Saturday afternoon, she will attend her brother’s football game against the third-ranked Clemson Tigers and sit in the stands in Death Valley, wearing her brother’s No. 49 BC jersey.
“She was a huge Clemson fan,’’ Steele said. “The two years that we played them when she was there, we would always have a debate. I’d be like, ‘All right, who are you going to root for?’ and the day before the game, she’d finally say, ‘OK, I’m going to root for BC.’ ”
Collette was merely toying with her brother’s emotions, teasing him much the way she did when they were younger.
“I’ve always had a special relationship with her,’’ Steele said. “We were so close in age, too. When we were really young, she used to beat me up. My mom said she used to bite my ears and beat me up pretty good. I was a little wimp growing up, but she’d beat me up.’’
Collette doesn’t deny it.
“That was true,’’ she said. “It was tough love — that’s what it was, tough love.’’
“She’s still a tough kid, I know that much,’’ Steele said. “What she’s been through, she’s awesome, man.’’
Collette proved as much by taking on the challenge of going to college. But it wasn’t without some separation anxiety.
“I was so nervous about being away from Steele and my sister and my family and also all of my friends at home,’’ Collette said. “But after a while, I was not nervous. Also, I never got homesick because I always texted with Steele all the time. He was at Boston College, but he was always calling me and texting me and checking on me.’’
Steele even made a surprise visit last Easter to see Collette at Clemson. They went to Mass, had dinner, and hung out. Collette proudly squired Steele around campus, introducing him to all her friends.
“Collette hasn’t been cut short of a normal life,’’ Steele said. “We’ve always challenged her in some aspect, but she’s always wanted to challenge herself. We’ve always treated her the same as well, and I think it’s really developed her into the person that she is.’’
A safe place to be
Already confident in her own right, having skied and played on the freshman basketball team at her high school, Collette blossomed at Clemson once she adapted to her new surroundings and settled into her new routine.
When Steele joined BC teammate Chase Rettig at the ACC Football Kickoff in July in Greensboro, N.C., he sought out Clemson quarterback Tajh Boyd to express his gratitude for the team’s involvement with the ClemsonLife program.
“I know some of the kids on the team would volunteer some of their time to the program and that was pretty awesome,’’ Divitto said. “The program that they have set up, you wish you saw more of that. You wish there were more schools that had that type of program, because it’s a really special program.
“She was really fortunate to have been down there, but she was kept safe for two years and that’s the biggest thing. That’s what you always worry about. Clemson’s a very tight-knit community, it’s nothing crazy. The people there are friendly — over-the-top friendly — and they’re very caring.
“It’s a little slower pace down South, which was good for her as well. It wasn’t overwhelming for her.’’
When Steele posed for a photo with Boyd at the Kickoff and e-mailed a copy to his sister, Collette immediately expressed concern about her brother’s fraternization with the enemy.
“She got all fired up,’’ Steele said with a chuckle. “She was like, ‘Oh my gosh, I can’t believe you guys are together. Were you guys fighting or something?’ I was like, ‘No, no, no, we were just hanging out.’ ”
That’s not likely to be the case Saturday.
When Collette visited Steele this summer before preseason camp, he brought her around BC’s football offices, where she met the staff and sat down with coach Steve Addazio.
“She tried to tell him about Clemson’s plays and stuff,’’ said Divitto, breaking into a wide smile. “She keeps telling me that she wants to talk to the entire team, but I keep telling her, ‘Oh, Collette, I don’t know if that’s going to work out.’ She wants to give them a pep talk.
“But she’s awesome. She’s a real blessing having her in my life.’’
So what would be her message if she had the opportunity to speak to the BC team before Saturday’s game?
“I want to say to all the BC team to follow their dreams,’’ Collette said. “Also, never give up. Just keep trying their best, and they will win the game. I just really need to say that to them, never give up.’’Michael Vega can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.