On a cloudy spring afternoon in late March, Anthony Ianni walks into Heartwood Elementary School in Mason, Michigan, a small town about 20 minutes outside of the state’s capital, Lansing. As he enters in through the school’s front doors, he makes a quick right and darts into the school’s small cafeteria. Upon entering in through the passageway, all heads in the room turn to him, as they know the man they have been waiting for has arrived.
Ianni has come here today to meet with a group called the Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD) Family Support Group. The group is an organization in the Lansing area that reaches out to families with children who are part of the autism spectrum, offering them resources and support in what can sometimes be a very tough time.
“Probably yesterday I felt like giving up,” said Mauricio Portillo the day of the meeting, whose 2nd grade son Evan was recently diagnosed with autism. “I just felt so down. It just seems like in the chaos that comes on when he’s getting bullied, it’s hard and I always feel beat up sometimes.”
Portillo has come tonight with his wife Leslie along with their son Evan. For families like the Portillos, the meetings held by the ASD Family Support Group help immensely.
“You think you’re the only one going through the problems and then it’s nice to hear everybody else say what they went through and how they handled it,” Leslie said. “Handling it is the hard part because you don’t know what to do. And so it’s just getting advice from other people that’s helpful.”
And this month’s special guest speaker just so happens to be Anthony Ianni.
A former Division 1 college basketball player at nearby Michigan State University, Ianni stands at 6’9”, towering over the rest of the people in the room. On a day like today though, Ianni isn’t here so much to talk about his basketball playing days.
No, Ianni is here today to tell a story that has much more to it than that.
Ever since his basketball career at Michigan State came to a close, Ianni has set his sights upon helping people, where he now does so through public and motivational speaking, sharing his story and experiences to help autistic children and speak out against bullying, which has brought him to where he is today.
However, as Ianni stands in front of the room and speaks, it’s hard to imagine that at one point in his life, some thought he would never be able to do something like this at all.
Ianni was born in Athens, Ohio on January 10, 1989. Born into a family of athletes, Ianni’s dad, Greg, played baseball at Michigan State while his mom, Jamie was a 3 sport star at Adrian College.
Soon after Anthony was born, the family moved themselves back to Michigan in the town of Okemos, just outside of Lansing and Greg’s alma mater Michigan State, where Anthony would live out the rest of his childhood.
At the age of 4, Anthony was diagnosed with Pervasive Developmental Disorder, which is a type of disability on the autism spectrum. A year later, Greg and Jamie sat down with a group of doctors and specialists to discuss Anthony’s disability.
What doctors told Anthony’s parents on that day nearly 20 years ago was that their son was severely autistic and because of this he would have a very tough time graduating high school and if he did, he would barely do it. Doctors told the Ianni’s that their son would never go to college, let alone even set foot on a college campus. And lastly, they told them that whenever Anthony would finish high school, he would go on to live the rest of his life in a home, living with other autistic people like himself.
All these things laid out in front of them, being an athlete was the last thing they thought Anthony would become.
“I wasn’t told this story until my freshman year of high school,” Anthony said. “So when I was told that story, that kinda became my motivation from here on out to prove those people wrong and any other doubters I’ve had in my life wrong.”
And come to find out, Ianni would go on to do just that, striving to accomplish his dreams and prove doubters wrong.
But it didn’t come without its hardships.
Once in elementary school, a bully took advantage of him and told him to stick his tongue on a metal pole during recess.
Also, Ianni struggled in the classroom, especially in math and english. And social cues, sarcasm, and idioms were the worst.
“I remember once my teacher said she was floating on cloud nine,” Ianni said. “I literally looked out the window and was like which cloud is yours? Is your house up there? Which one is number 9?”
Nevertheless though, Anthony never gave up on his journey of proving doubters wrong, and his parents never did either.
Throughout his childhood, Anthony’s father, Greg, always had a few wise words to share with his son, but one particular quote from his father really hit home with Anthony and has now become something of a testimony to his life.
“The harder you work, the more you earn.”
That’s the quote that Ianni would go on to live his life around; the quote that would help him go on to do so many great things and live out his dreams.
And Anthony would go on to find what one of those dreams would be. Always tall for his age, Ianni eventually fell in love with the game of basketball and at times he would use it as an outlet in his struggles.
“Sports were my biggest thing,” Ianni said. “Whenever I was down and I just needed to be by myself, a basketball, a hoop and a gym was where I was always at. It was kinda my quiet area to get things off my mind. That’s where I would go. That was my place.”
And it most certainly was.
Once in the 6th grade, an already 6’0” tall Ianni was being harassed by a fellow classmate who was constantly calling him the “Jolly Green Giant.” When the two later squared off on the basketball court that year, Ianni dropped 20 points on the kid.
“After that day, I didn’t hear the name ‘Jolly Green Giant’ again,” Ianni said.
By the time Anthony got to high school, he went in as a 6’6” freshman. As a sophomore, Ianni made the varsity basketball squad and made contributions to a team that finished the season 16-5.
The next year, Ianni had become a very integral part of the Okemos basketball team. During his junior year, Ianni averaged 9.5 points, 8.2 rebounds and 3.1 blocks, helping his team to a 25-2 overall record and the Division 1 state championship game, where they eventually lost in double overtime to Saginaw Arthur Hill, 85-84.
As a senior, Anthony finished his career off at Okemos strong, averaging 10.8 points, 8 rebounds, and 3 blocks, leading his team to a very respectable 17-6 record.
Upon receiving his high school diploma, Ianni would go on to accept a full ride scholarship to play basketball for Grand Valley State University. There, Ianni was a part of a very solid Division II program, taking part on a team that began the season 36-0 his first year there, before finally dropping a game to Winona State in the Division II NCAA Tournament.
However, after two years at Grand Valley, due to a few issues with the coaches, Ianni decided to return home and transfer to Michigan State, where head basketball coach Tom Izzo had given him the opportunity to walk on.
“It was a place that always had been home to me. A place where as a child it had always been a dream and goal to play for this particular team and this particular coach,” Ianni said. “Coach Izzo and Michigan State was an opportunity I could not pass up.”
During his three years on the Michigan State basketball team, one of those being the mandatory red shirt year the NCAA requires for transfers, Ianni became one of the hardest working players on the scout team. Ianni would show up an hour before practice every day to scout the other team and then play the part of other players such as Duke’s Mason Plumlee or Ohio State’s Jared Sullinger in practices.
Although he played sparingly in his career at Michigan State, Ianni’s hard work eventually paid off his senior year, when Coach Izzo awarded him a full ride scholarship.
“When he told me that, I went in my car and I sat in my car for about five minutes and I started to cry a little bit,” Ianni said.“Everything I worked for and what I wanted to do in Michigan State was coming together and for me to be put on scholarship was without a doubt a dream come true for me.”
But possibly the most remarkable part of this whole story, and Ianni’s fondest part of his days at Michigan State, is what happened a little over a month after his playing days came to a close.
“My proudest moment was when I walked across that stage May 5th of 2012 and got my college diploma in hand,” Ianni said. “I was able to do something that people said I had no chance of doing.”
Ianni attributes his success and accomplishments in school to many people, but most notably his family and his teachers.
“I have a special place in my heart for teachers, not just in my school district, but for teachers all across the country,” Ianni said. “I struggled in school. But my teachers, they understood my disability. They understood if I didn’t get something, they would ask me.”
As for his parents, Ianni doesn’t know where he would be without them.
“My parents have been to hell and back, they’ve done it all,” Ianni said. “They sat through those IEP meetings, they sat through that meeting when I was five, saying I was not going to amount to anything in my life. They’ve been through it all. Without them, I would not be who I am at today.
Today, after graduating with a degree in sociology from Michigan State, Ianni has changed his focus to reaching out to kids who are part of the autism spectrum and their families, speaking out against bullying and offering them his story as inspiration and support.
For Mauricio Portillo, who had felt so down just the day before the meeting, listening to Ianni talk uplifted his spirits.
“That story was inspirational,” Portillo said. “It makes me feel like I have something to look forward to. Watching people like him, it really inspires me and boosts me with some energy and some ideas to keep on going.”
Other parents sitting in on Ianni’s talk also feel very encouraged by his story, like Kenny Fuentes, a father of three autistic children.
“It’s one of those stories and you listen to it and you’re going for him and cheering for him and he actually made it,” Fuentes said. “He made his dream happen. For me, as a father with kids with autism, I can believe that they can do something great.”
And on a day like today, as Ianni so naturally stands up in front a room full of people, telling them his story, it is clear that he has conquered every set of obstacles that has been placed in his path.
Just over five months into his speaking career, it’s evident that he has a knack for what he’s doing. Ianni’s career is really starting to take off as he is now being asked to speak in places all over the country.
“This is what I was born to do, make an impact on people’s life,” Ianni said. “This is something I plan on doing for a very long time. I love it.”
When his speech is through, and some people start to head home, Ianni sticks around for a while longer, talking one on one with some parents or posing for some pictures with kids.
As things start to wind down a bit more, and kids approach Ianni for an autograph, he happily obliges. After he’s done signing his name, and adding a ‘Go Green’ here or a ‘Go White’ there, he always finishes signing with his trademark acronym, an acronym that he certainly has had a lot of experience in his life with and wants others to do the same.
Live your dream.
Follow Ryan Squanda on twitter @squandarunner