Athlete of the Year leads by example

As the time approached to present the 2011 Athlete of the Year award, Special Olympics of North Carolina leaders chose an environment best suited to its recipient.

Known for his leadership and good character among his teammates and opponents, the award was presented to 19-year-old Todd Bass of Harrisburg in front of his peers at the state championship soccer tournament in High Point in November.

Bass was recognized individually for his yearlong athletic achievements and spirit. In addition, his Cabarrus Tigers soccer team won the tourney's gold medal. It was only the most recent of the many high honors he's earned in his seven years of Special Olympics competition.

Bass' Cabarrus Tigers basketball team was scheduled to play in Saturday's Southern Piedmont Area Basketball Series in Concord, which serves as a qualifier for the state tournament.

The son of Steve and Gail Bass, Todd Bass has has always participated in three sports: track and field, soccer and basketball. Steve Bass is the Tigers' coach in soccer and basketball.

In 2006, the Tigers won the gold medal at the state soccer tournament and participated in the national Special Olympics in Ames, Iowa. Playing in a five-on-five format, the Tigers won a bronze medal.

Other competition highlights of Todd Bass's Special Olympics career have included winning a gold medal at the basketball state games in 2010 and a silver in 2011. The soccer Tigers picked up a silver medal in 2010.

Bass was a member of a 2009 relay team that captured a gold medal in the 400-meter relay at the track-and-field state championships.

Standing an even 5 feet and weighing 107 pounds, Bass's heart makes up for what he lacks in size. He doesn't back down from any physical challenge.

"I always put him on (the opponent's) best player," Steve Bass said of his basketball-playing son. "People say, 'Why do you put him on a taller player?' I say, 'He's like a water bug. He just gives them a fit.' "

Todd's people skills earned him the role of "global messenger," representing the Special Olympics organization in addressing groups and dignitaries.

In 2010, Bass was twice invited to Washington, D.C., to speak with members of Congress about the importance of supporting Special Olympics. Among the people he met was former congressman Patrick Kennedy, whose aunt, Eunice Kennedy Shriver, founded Special Olympics in 1968.

When Emily Riley, Cabarrus County's Special Olympics program coordinator, considered nominating someone for the state athlete of the year award, she considered all Bass has done in and out of the athletic arena.

"He leads others by example," Riley said. "He coaches. He teaches. He's always smiling. He hustles and encourages other athletes. He's not selfish. He does a sport every single season.

"He's very involved. He takes it beyond the sports."

In 2010, the state Athlete of the Year award was presented to the winner on Eunice Kennedy Shriver Day in September. In 2011, state Special Olympics leaders wanted Bass to be honored in front of his peers.

At a dance-social that marked the end of the Fall Games in November, Bass was called onstage and presented his award.

"I was excited," said Bass. "I was shocked. It was pretty awesome."

When asked recently whether he looks up to or draws inspiration from other athletes, Bass named teammate John Mulhall, a 21-year-old from Charlotte who's battling a debilitating neuromuscular disease.

"He's a real go-getter," said Bass. "He never quits. He never gives up."

That sounds a lot like Todd Bass, too.