In the rabidness of fandom, sometimes it’s easy to forget the pure joy sports provides. Why enjoy something when it’s easier to argue, belittle or banter about some minutiae?
If you’re lost among the trees, then just look to Thomas Selbe.
Until Tuesday morning you probably never heard of him but that’s OK, it’s not too late to follow his way.
But first you need to know a little bit about Thomas.
He didn’t speak when he was young. Didn’t sit still. At age 4, his parents found out why. Thomas was diagnosed as autistic.
He took speech therapy all through elementary, junior high and high school to the point when if it’s a subject he loves, he’ll talk nearly non-stop now.
He also joined Special Olympics and found an outlet he had never known.
“When I was in school I used to be bullied a lot,’’ Thomas, now 25, told NBC Sports. “I just wanted to be part of something where everybody was included and nobody said, ‘No, you can’t do this. No, you can’t do that. No, you’re not welcome.’ ”
He flourished in Special Olympics and grew to where if one met him, they likely wouldn’t know about his condition.
“He has come further than my husband and I ever dreamed,” Beth Selbe said of her son. “Thomas has just exceeded every single goal.”
Then came that day in 2004. His parents were watching the NASCAR Cup race from Rockingham when Thomas walked into the room. He sat down, saw the cars and didn’t move.
“I used to have trouble sitting still and paying attention but that day, my dad recalled, that was the first time he’d seen me sit for so long,’’ Thomas said.
Beth also vividly remembers that day. They hadn’t found anything that kept him so calm until then, so they embraced NASCAR as a family.
They live in Santee, California — not far from El Cajon, home of Jimmie Johnson. The nearest NASCAR track is Auto Club Speedway, which is about a two-hour drive away. Beth and David took their son to the Cup race there in February 2005.
He loved it.
Friends at church pitched in so Thomas and his family could go to Charlotte and attend the Coca-Cola 600 in 2006. The day before the race, they went to the fan appreciation event at Evernham Motorsports and met the drivers, including Thomas’ favorite, Kasey Kahne. The next day, Kahne won the 600.
“It was the perfect race weekend as far as Tom was concerned,’’ Beth said.
The family didn’t get back to another NASCAR race until 2010 when they returned to Auto Club Speedway. They kept going year after year, providing Thomas with special memories.
“I like seeing how the drivers interact with the fans and give them an experience that they’ll never forget,’’ he said.
Thomas recalls standing at the front of a stage for Joey Logano’s appearance one year. Thomas caught some good-natured ribbing from the emcee for wearing Kahne’s gear but Logano admired the diecast car Thomas held.
It was the car Logano ran in his first ARCA race at Rockingham in 2008, a race Logano won. He signed the car for Thomas. That is one of many diecast cars Thomas has at home, along with a coupe of pieces of sheet metal from Dale Earnhardt Jr.‘s cars.
Which brings us to the letter.
Last year marked the first time since 2009 that Thomas would not attend the Cup race at Auto Club Speedway. His Special Olympics floor hockey team qualified for the Winter World Games in Ramsau, Austria. He was excited to go but disappointed he would miss the race.
So he wrote many of the drivers letters explaining why he wouldn’t be able to attend the race and explained to them what Special Olympics had meant to him. He sent the letters to the race shops. Over time, he received some correspondences, including signed hero cards.
Those hero cards at the track had inspired him. In the letter to the drivers, he also included a picture of his floor hockey team. It was his version of a hero card and he signed it for each driver.
“I wanted to sign the photos because I thought it would be cool to do what the drivers do,” Thomas said.
The letter to Clint Bowyer included something else. Thomas put the gold medal his team won that earned them a spot at the 2017 Special Olympics Winter World Games.
Tuesday, Bowyer saw Thomas’ letter. He tweeted a picture of it and the medal and wrote: “Your inspiration was just the motivation I needed. Let’s all kick ass this week.”
Soon after, Thomas saw the tweet.
“To be honest, I nearly dropped my phone when I saw Clint’s tweet” Thomas said. “I was like wow!
“I had no idea I’d made such an impact or be such an inspiration.”
That’s the beauty of sports.