David Glidden remembers little about receiving his high school diploma.
But graduation night is seared into his memory.
That's because of a special-needs classmate he walked with across the stage. It was the exclamation mark on an experience that capped his senior year at Mustang High School and changed his outlook on life.
“It was the most incredible thing I've ever felt,” he said.
That's saying something.
Glidden, after all, has already done some amazing things. Athletically, he was a three-sport star — a Parade All-American in football, an All-State guard in basketball and a pro prospect in baseball once upon a time. Academically, he was rock solid with a 3.7 grade-point average and several college credits already on his transcript at Oklahoma State, where he will play football.
Because of that combination of athletic and academic prowess, Glidden is the recipient of the Bob Colon Scholarship. It is presented by The Oklahoman and the Jim Thorpe Association to the top male high school scholar-athlete in the Oklahoma City area.
His mom always told him to thank God for his blessings, gifts and talents, and while Glidden followed her advice, he never quite got it.
Now, after deciding to get involved in Mustang's Students Assisting Students program, which places able-bodied students in the school's special-needs classroom, he has a whole different perspective.
“I would be the one helping them with stuff,” Glidden said, “but in the big picture, I was the one who go the most out of it.”
Things, you see, have often come easily for Glidden.
Born into an athletic family — both his grandpa and his dad played college football — playing sports was a natural.
“As soon as we could walk ...,” Glidden's older brother, Dylan, said, “we were throwing whatever kind of ball we could get our hands on.”
Glidden's dad, Pete, remembers being in the driveway one Sunday morning with David. They were waiting on Glidden's mom, Deidre, to go to church, and David wanted to play catch.
He caught the ball 34 times in a row.
He was only 4 years old.
“I knew right then,” Pete said, “he was going to have good hands.”
The only thing that broke the streak was the family finally having to leave for church.
Glidden played every sport with similar ease. It didn't matter whether he was playing basketball in the cul-de-sac near the house until after dark or baseball in the backyard that his dad would mow like a diamond every spring. Playing most of the time with his older brother and his friends added toughness and tenacity.
His competitiveness even showed in his school work. One day in fifth grade, he came home stressed.
“I think I'm going to get a B on my report card,” he told his dad.
“And?” his dad said.
The Gliddens always encouraged good grades, and in their minds, a B was good.
Not so for Glidden.
“He's always wanted to do his best,” Pete said.
That internal motivation was enough to turn him into a 5-foot-8, 160-pound powerhouse and one of the best multisport athletes in the state. He was a prep star in Oklahoma. He was a big man on campus at Mustang.
And yet, when several of his good friends suggested that he get involved in the Students Assisting Students program, he wasn't so sure.
“I'd never really been involved in anything like that,” he said of assisting with special-needs students. “When I went into it, I was scared.”
There are about a dozen kids in the class. A few have Down syndrome. Others are in wheelchairs.
Glidden developed a strong bond with one girl in particular, Gifty Thomas. She had Down syndrome, but she had some serious personality, too.
“She'd be bossy. She was a smart aleck. She did it all,” Glidden said, smiling.
Some days, the SAS volunteers would play games with the students. Other days, they would listen to music or do a puzzle or watch a movie or dance. Glidden even taught Gifty and a couple others the dance that goes with the hip-hop song, “Cat Daddy.”
No matter what they were doing, though, Glidden quickly realized that as easy as it was for him, it was just that difficult for those students. They struggled physically. They struggled mentally. But they never stopped.
“A lot of people go in there to help those kids and hopefully do something for them, but it was the exact opposite,” Glidden said. “It took me that step back and it set me back to see every day how blessed I am.”
The final blessing came, though, on graduation night. Even though she will return to the special-needs class for a couple more years, Gifty decided to go through the ceremony and asked Glidden to walk across the stage with her.
She was the last one to graduate.
When she started down the aisle with Glidden by her side, the graduating class stood and cheered. The entire auditorium joined in the ovation. Classmates were crying. Teachers were snapping photos.
“When I think about graduation, I don't even think about me walking across the stage,” said Glidden, who still gets a bit emotional thinking about that night. “It's me walking across the stage with Gifty.”
“That right there,” he said, “topped off everything in high school.”