By BRIAN CUNNIFF
Mohamed Fathi doesn’t play a musical instrument or sing.
But at Wildwood High School, the guy they simply call “Mo” is a rock star.
Fathi is bound to a scooter due to a medical condition known as Duchenne Muscular Dystrophy, a degenerative muscle disease caused through a genetic defect that can lead to fatigue, muscle pain, muscle stiffness, breathing problems and other symptoms.
That hasn’t stopped the 17-year-old senior from becoming an icon at the school.
“He’s definitely the most popular kid in school by far,” said senior Tyler Tomlin, a standout in soccer and basketball at the school. “He’s just really funny. He’s always the center of attention every time he comes into a room because he has that real bubbly personality that everybody loves.”
How popular? On Saturday, the North Wildwood resident was voted Prom King.
No one was surprised.
“Not at all,” Tomlin said with a laugh. “Everybody went nuts when they made the announcement, even though we all knew he was going to win. Everybody was so excited for him.”
Fathi (pronounced FAHT-ee) will graduate in June as a 12-time letter winner in varsity sports, having served as the manager for the boys soccer, boys basketball and baseball teams for four years apiece. It’s his way of participating in sports, even though it’s physically impossible for him to jump in the air for a header, leap for a rebound or swing a bat.
“Being a manager helped me make friends and helped me interact and helped me do things,” Fathi said. “At first, I was only going to do it for basketball but then my friends encouraged me to do soccer and baseball. It’s nice to do all three of them for all four years.”
Fathi still feels like a major part of the teams, despite never being able to take the court or the field.
“I feel like I do a good amount for the team,” he said. “The kids come up to me all the time and ask me about their stats. I feel like I contribute pretty well. It’s a fun experience, being around our sports teams here, too.”
Fathi makes it fun for all involved, too.
“He’s hilarious,” said Wildwood coach Rich Hans, who always sits within earshot of Fathi while in dugout just to listen to what he has to say. “You’d have to come sit in the dugout at one of our games to understand. He’s so funny. But at the same time, you take a look at him and the stuff he has to deal with, you realize things could be so much worse for you. The kid constantly has a smile on his face. It’s like nothing in the world bothers him.”
The players all want to be around Fathi, Hans said.
“They’re unbelievable with him,” he said. “They’re always fighting over who gets to help him. It’s amazing what they do for him. They know how much he appreciates it.”
Fathi could still walk somewhat regularly when he entered Wildwood High School as a freshman. Today, he can only get around on his scooter.
“Sometimes he speeds down the halls,” Wildwood High School principal Phil Schaffer said with a smile. “We have to slow him down and (threaten) him with a speeding ticket.”
Despite his limitations, Fathi gets around well. He never needs help unless climbing steps is involved. In the summer, he’s able to swim in pools. He likes to play video games in his spare time, much like any other teenager. And, in addition to his involvement with the sports teams, he’s also been involved in student council and the theatre guild at Wildwood.
“He’s definitely been a joy to have around,” Schaffer said. “One of the really good things is, he’s involved. He doesn’t let any part of his disability interfere with being involved. That’s pretty special.”
Fathi comes from a relatively large family. His parents, Djamel and Zahia, emigrated here from Algeria shortly before Mo was born. He also has three younger sisters — Imene, 15, a freshman three-sport athlete at Wildwood; Laila, 9; and Sabrin, 8. Fathi’s father is a veterinarian and his mother works as a medical assistant.
When Imene first entered Wildwood High School, she had no idea how popular her brother was.
“When I got here nobody really knew I was his sister at first,” Imene said. “I’d hear people talking about him all the time. They’d always say good things about him. Then they’d find out I was his sister and they’d be like, ‘Wow, Mo’s your brother? Everybody loves him.’”
Imene said that her older brother receives no special treatment. Which, she said, is exactly how he wants it.
“I honestly love that,” she said. “Nobody treats him differently. He’s always included. Everyone gives him a chance at things.”
Fathi’s mother spoke glowingly of her son’s experience at Wildwood High School.
“They treat him good,” Zahia said. “He gets all that he needs. They take care of him so much. There’s never a problem getting him what he needs.
“The other kids treat him like friends. They love him. … He has lots of friends and they help him. They take care of him.”
His many friends at school are always willing to lend a helping hand. For example, when the sports teams go to away games, a player or two will lift Fathi and carry him onto the bus, while other players handle placing the scooter on the bus. There are also times when his teammates help him use a non-ADA-compliant restroom when necessary.
“The kids just kind of embraced him right from the start,” said Wildwood boys soccer coach Steve DeHorsey. “With his disability, there are certain things involved so he can take the road trips. The kids embraced helping him without me ever having to say anything. They just took care of him and got him whatever he needed.
“It’s been an adventure with Mo,” DeHorsey added with a laugh. “He’s a good kid that I’ve had the pleasure of watching grow up. It’s nice to see him maturing and having fun with kids and doing things he enjoys and still being part of the team.”
There is some unknown for Fathi when it comes to his condition. Some with Duchenne Muscular Dystrophy die rather young but others who take medication and follow regular physical therapy can live much longer.
“There are times I’m not able to move my arms and I can’t walk at all,” Fathi said. “But I take steroids and they really help.”
Fathi is set to attend Richard Stockton University in the fall. He plans to major in business management, with a minor in hospitality management. He hopes to one day become a hotel manager.
Fathi was asked if he remembered his first day at Wildwood High School. He laughed.
“I knew a lot of people here already but when I first got here I remember I was really nervous,” he recalled. “I was nervous about going to high school. Now I just feel very comfortable here.
“It’s been really good. I’ve never had a problem here at all with the kids, the teachers, anyone at the school. Everyone’s understood me pretty well.”
Fathi was one of the more recognizable people in the gym when the boys basketball team went on its surprising playoff run to the South Jersey Group I title game in early March.
“He’s been the face of our team,” Wildwood boys basketball coach Scott McCracken said. “The kids all love him and we love that he’s part of the team. They take good care of him and they’re always glad to bring him along.
“He’s a special kid. He’s had a special relationship with every player and every coach. When he’s not here next (season) when the first practice rolls out in November, that’s going to be strange, because he’s come to every practice and every game. He’s been so important to us. It’ll be difficult not having him around.”
Schaffer said Fathi winning Prom King honors almost serves as a proper send-off for a student who’s made such a positive impact on the school’s community.
“It speaks volumes to the type of person he is and how the kids at Wildwood embrace him,” Schaffer said. “I’m sure other schools have similar kids to Mo but because we’re such a small school everyone knows him and everyone wants to see him be successful.
“That right there, him winning Prom King, the kids are acknowledging what he’s meant to them. Pun intended, that was his crowning moment. And he deserved it.”
Fathi was asked if there was a good story or two he could share about his experience at Wildwood.
“There’s too many to tell,” he said while shaking his head with a laugh. “Just too many to tell.”