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June 2017 Hero of the Month: Scott Mortland

It is appropriate to recognize a very special dad as the June Hero of the Month. The story below from the San Diego Union Tribune on Father’s Day, June 18, 2017, pays tribute to Scott Mortland and the loving care he gives his special needs son, Gregory. The fact that Scott and his wife Evelyn adopted Gregory, and that Scott devotes his days to making sure Gregory has a quality life, justifiably makes Scott my hero of the month. Thanks to Kevin Acee for telling Scott and Gregory’s story:

Every Sunday at Padres Games is Father’s Day

By KEVIN ACEE, Union-Tribune Reporter

The national anthem was being sung as the happiest father and son in the ballpark slowly walked to their seats.

Yes, it is often dangerous, sometimes lazy and even unfair to label with absolutes.

Best. Brightest. Happiest. Really? How do we know?

Baseball, in its more than a century as our pastime, has given countless memories to fathers and sons. At Petco Park on a recent sunshine-y Sunday, there were undoubtedly other fathers and sons sharing a special time they will possibly remember as long as their memories live.

But to say Scott Mortland and his son, Gregory, were the most joyful of all, each in their own way, is almost indisputable.

Scott and Gregory Mortland enjoy the time they share at the San Diego Padres game. Photo captured from video appearing on the March 18, 2017 online edition of the San Diego Union Tribune.

Father enjoying watching the game he loves being played by the team he has cheered for since they arrived in town almost 50 years ago. His only son enjoying watching the crowd, touching as many of those in it as he possibly can, waiting for that fourth-inning popcorn.

The two so clearly enjoying each other.

“If we had not found this … “ Scott said.

And what he leaves unsaid is almost too painful to comprehend.

There is no overstating the importance of the love between a father and son. For some, the connection is never forged. Even in the best such rapports, there are instances it is difficult to relate, and the precious commodity of time together is a challenge to come by.

The relationship between Scott and Gregory can often be best described as a fight for survival.

You see, Gregory is mentally disabled. He is 21 years old and doesn’t speak, signs just a little, needs continual care from the morning diaper change to when he falls asleep tuckered out from his nearly constant wandering throughout the day.

He is a happy kid. Outgoing.

But there are the occasional tantrums. Scott and Evelyn Mortland have both borne the scars at various times that come when Gregory is tired and frustrated and has no other way to express himself besides getting physical.

It is Scott who a few years ago retired from his software business and took over full-time care of Gregory, the youngest of the Mortland’s four adopted children.

There have been some “very, very difficult times,” Scott said.

He is candid but not dramatic. He shares briefly, in spurts, a few of the more traumatic experiences with Gregory. Conversely, he’ll talk for minutes without breathing about Gregory’s beautiful heart and how much love he has brought the entire family.

You don’t need the entire story to connect the dots.

Scott is 57. Evelyn is a cancer survivor. Their oldest daughter is getting married at the end of the summer. Their adopted son could be in a group home for special needs adults. He’s not.

Gregory Mortland smiles at a Padres game attended with his father. Photo captured from video appearing on the March 18, 2017 online edition of the San Diego Union Tribune

Scott loves his son with a vigor that defies words. And not just because it has to.

Seeing them at a baseball game is all it takes to know why and how.

They arrive just before first pitch.

As they walked in on a recent Sunday, Gregory smiling the entire time as his father guided him behind the row of seats leading to their spot at the end. A few times, Scott tugged gently to pull Gregory closer as they passed people.

Gregory’s seat is at the very end. Scott to his right. Just before they sat, Gregory saw their friend, Ron, and touched him on the arm. A gentle tug by Scott.

Shortly after they sat down, an usher passed by to say hello. Gregory grabbed his hand.

As Gregory sat cross-legged, another usher approached, and Gregory waved and reached out to grab his hand. Gregory uncrossed his legs. He touched his father’s face.

The thing that stands out in watching their interaction is the seemingly involuntary fluidity with which Scott repeatedly reaches out to soothe Gregory, who stops fidgeting only to watch the crowd for seconds at a time. Sometimes he is stimulated by something longer, but in those first few innings there is one thing clearly predominant in his mind.

He knows the sign for “popcorn” and “eat.” Those start almost immediately, Gregory leaning in, getting six inches from Scott’s face, in his view. Gregory touching his chin to let Scott know he wants to eat. Scott holding up two fingers, affirming to Gregory that they will get popcorn.

Gregory leans back.

Gregory will occasionally reach out, across his father, to Ron. Scott will gently, practically without moving, guide Gregory back.

After almost every time his father does this – in some way correcting or guiding him – Gregory will hug Scott, who will peck his son on the cheek. Gregory will sit back smiling.

The process will start over in a matter of seconds. The reaching, the touching, the signing. The correction, the hug, the kiss, the smile. Scott talks to Ron, cheers the action on the field, pays attention to his son.

Seeing all this, interacting with Gregory, sticks with you.

A warmth radiates from him. And from Scott. Each has their unique gregariousness.

Yet you also leave them wondering how in the world Scott puts up with this constancy of motion and neediness hour after hour, day after day.

It is then that you know even more why this is where they are happiest, where the father is allowed to share his love of baseball with his son.

“He’s very stimulated by people, and he likes to be on the go,” Scott said. “… He feels the energy of it. He doesn’t pay much attention to the game. I don’t think he knows what is happening in the game. You can tell he just loves where he is.”

It was on a whim that Scott decided to take Gregory to a Padres game in 2010. Besides getting through days the best they could – Scott often driving Gregory around in the darkness before dawn to calm him, walking around their Carlsbad neighborhood for exercise and the stimulus Gregory craves – father and son didn’t have much to truly share.

Scott and his mom split half-season tickets for years before she passed away in 2008. Scott kept the tickets, but taking Gregory seemed like more of a difficulty than it might be worth. Scott is sensitively alert to how Gregory is affecting other people, in that Gregory is highly social, and his interaction is in the form of touching. He checks people’s pockets, feels their faces, reaches for their hands.

It is all done with a smile and inquisitive look that is far from threatening. But it is up close, and it is continual.

“Nine times out of 10 – 9½ times out of 10 – people love it,” Scott said. “However, they don’t want to be poked for a couple hours.”

He decided some time in 2010, though, to take Gregory to a game in their seats along the right field line. His plan was to “see if we can get through an inning, whatever he can do.”

There was a lot of touching. There was popcorn. Gregory lasted almost the entire nine innings.

Some eight seasons later – and seat switches that eventually led them to the ADA section below the press box – Sunday home games have turned into their special time.

Those other fathers and sons at Petco Park for the finale of the Padres series with Arizona last month probably talked about the players on the field. Maybe they played catch on the grass near Tony Gwynn’s statue. Some dads perhaps shared a little history about the Padres or the D-Backs. Because that’s what dads do with their sons at baseball games.

The father and son that never have and never will do those things were happiest of all.

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