James Kennedy is the most popular guy at T.L. Hanna High School, but he is not a student.
He just may be the most celebrated member of the football and basketball teams at the Anderson, S.C. high school, but he has never played — not even for a second.
Kennedy — nicknamed "Radio," because he used to carry one around constantly — is mentally disabled. The 56-year-old can neither read, nor write, and his speech is limited. But each morning at 6:30, Kennedy takes a school bus to the high school that has become his second home.
No one could get him to leave, but then again, nobody is asking him to.
The school's adopted "student" has become a local legend, a kind spirit who has taught two generations of high school students a lesson about love.
"To know Radio is to love Radio, and he loves everybody else," said special education teacher Allison Boozer. "It doesn't matter how bad your day is going, he comes up and gives you a hug and says 'I love you' and the bad day is washed away."
Hanging Around the Sidelines
It all began in 1963, when Kennedy, then 17, wandered onto the field during football practice and began mimicking coach Harold Jones from the sideline.
Instead of shooing Kennedy away, he invited the teen to stick around. Nearly 40 years later, Jones still isn't sure why he reacted the way he did.
"I don't know why — he just kept hanging around us you know, and so we said 'OK, come on, travel with us. Come on up on the sidelines on the game day,'" Jones said. "And so that's kind of how it started and he did, you know."
He never would have dreamed how much Kennedy would have blossomed, and how much the students would accept him. Nor did he realize at the time what an effect he had on the players and students at the school.
It meant a lot to Kennedy to attend the games — and when the weather was too foul for football, he kept his outlook sunny, Jones said.
"When we had football games and it was pouring down rain you know he'd come in the office and he'd tell 'em, 'sun's coming out' — you know he didn't want us to call that ball game off," Jones recalled. "And he'd be soaking wet — he'd be outside looking up at the sky — raining like crazy."
Soon Jones made Kennedy a football coach, track coach and basketball coach. Kennedy passes out his own business cards.
A Rite of Passage
When not on the athletic fields, Kennedy is a constant presence in the school, always ready with a smile and affectionate words for the students.
"We all derive so much from Radio," said Hanna High School Principal Mike Sams. "As much as T. L. Hanna High School does for Radio, Radio does for T.L. Hannah High School."
At football games, Kennedy can be seen giving high-fives and handshakes to the guy students, and hugs to the girls. But when the team loses, Kennedy said that he cuts them no slack, and does "get on 'em."
On the bus, he shushes students who get too rowdy. "Gotta be quiet on the bus," Kennedy says, laughing.
But at the school talent show, Kennedy himself joined in on the fun, with his own impersonation of James Brown.
"I feel good," he sang, to loud applause from the students.
Radio Gets Star Status
As the school and the surrounding community embraced Kennedy, the boy who once hid in the shadows has become a celebrity.
He has his own song, played on local stations, "Everyone knows Radio," the lyrics say.
Now, a Hollywood producer is making a film based on his life, with Cuba Gooding Jr. playing Kennedy, Ed Harris playing Jones, the coach, and Debra Winger playing the coach's wife.
But Kennedy's pride and joy remains his "Wall of Fame," the numerous articles and awards displayed at Hanna High School. Kennedy understands that he has won a place in the hearts of the people at the school — and he is proud.
"People love me," Kennedy said. "Everybody loves me."