Eric Higgins sobbed on the night of Feb. 20.
His favorite high school boys basketball team, Elkhorn, had beaten Delavan-Darien. The Elks improved their record to an impressive 18-3 in their final regular-season home game. Seemingly, there was little to frown about.
But Senior Night is always hard on Higgins.
Many years, it marks the last time he will watch his best friends play basketball. The 25-year-old Elkhorn graduate with Down syndrome is undoubtedly the Elks’ biggest fan, but he can typically only attend home games.
As a No. 3 seed in this year’s WIAA Division 2 bracket, Elkhorn got to host one more game, a regional semifinal against Burlington. But even that was not enough for this year’s group of Elkhorn players. They wanted to find a way for Higgins to see them play one more time.
“He was pretty emotional on Senior Night, thinking he’d never get to see us play again,” Elks senior guard Vince Umnus said. “I told him, ‘Higgy, we’re going to go to state, and you’re going to get to see us play again. I guarantee it.’
“Thank God I didn’t lie to him.”
Higgins did not get to see Elkhorn win by six in a regional final at East Troy. He missed out on Chance Larson’s buzzer-beater that avenged two regular-season losses to Westosha. And he settled for another postgame Facetime call Saturday after Luke Umnus’ game-winning layup sent the Elks past top-seeded Mount Horeb.
But on Friday, “Higgy” will get to watch his best friends play again—this time at the state tournament at the Kohl Center in Madison.
A love for sports
Eric Higgins may have been born with Down syndrome, but another ailment has dictated his life in a profound way: He was born an athlete and sports fanatic.
“When he was little, we’d have to pitch and pitch and pitch a ball to him,” Eric’s mother, Shelly, said. “Anything that was out there, he was in it.”
Higgins competed in Little League Baseball’s Challenger Division and participated in soccer. The Umnus brothers recall watching Higgins and the sister of current teammate Alex Hergott play on a Special Olympics basketball teams a few years ago.
“Most people with Down syndrome have no muscle tone,” Shelly Higgins said. “But he actually has great muscle tone. He’s always been active.”
More recently, Higgins has been involved in theater. But stop at an Elkhorn home sporting event—basketball, wrestling and soccer, for sure—and the odds are high Higgins will be there.
And yet he says basketball is his favorite.
His love for the Elkhorn program began roughly 10 years ago, when he was still in school. And it was born mostly out of curiosity.
Shelly is in charge of concessions at Elkhorn events, and she was stocking items one day when she realized Eric had ventured off.
“All of a sudden, he’d just be gone,” Shelly said. “There were closed varsity practices, but he got in.”
Elkhorn assistant coach Mike Storlie said Higgins simply wanted to be around the guys and would come in and help rebound.
“He had friendships with the guys and just wanted to be around them and around the game,” Storlie said.
By 2011, Higgins’ senior year, he had basically taken on a manager’s role.
“I helped the boys out. I got them water and towels,” he said. “The classes from 2009 to 2019 are all my friends. That’s a big deal.”
Rallying around ‘Higgy’
Eric Higgins hops up on a bench in the Elks’ home locker room before games.
Picture him raising his thumbs to his ears, the rest of his fingers outstretched and pointing upward. Typically known as “moose ears,” Higgins’ antlers instead represent the Elks.
“He jumps in the middle, and we all get around him as he starts yelling,” Vince Umnus said.
From there, Higgins helps during warmups, has his own set of special handshakes with the players and pumps them up one more time before tipoff.
Higgins is as active with this year’s boys team—Elkhorn’s first to reach the state tournament in 32 years—as any in the past.
“I’m in concessions, and parents would come up to me and say, ‘Your kid is awesome, you have to go see what he does,’” she said. “I went out there and there he was, on the floor doing handshakes with the starters.”
Higgins also makes a poster-board sign every year for his favorite team.
The sign begins with a slogan and the names and numbers of every player on the roster. Throughout the season, he fills the empty spots near each of those names with photos of him with the players.
“I made it on my own,” Higgins said. “It says ‘WE ARE MIGHTY ELKS.’ It has all our pictures.”
The players say their bond with Higgins goes far beyond posters and pregame rituals.
“He’s just someone that is always positive, and sometimes you really need that,” Luke Umnus said. “When you have a bad day at practice, sometimes he’s there for a girls game if they play that night and you can go to him. And even if you have a bad game, he never thinks you play bad.
“He’s definitely a part of this team.”
‘We’re going to state!’
On Tuesday, Higgins watched some of Elkhorn’s practice and then helped out during a youth basketball social put on by the team.
After area kids—ranging in age from kindergarten to eighth grade—had a chance to put up shots with the Elks, they closed with a question-and-answer session with the players.
Vince Umnus wrapped that up by turning and kneeling to sit on the floor with the kids. He had a question for “Higgy,” who stood with the players.
“Are you Elkhorn’s biggest fan?” Umnus asked.
“Yeah,” Higgins responded. “And WE’RE GOING TO STATE!!”
Elkhorn, the No. 4 seed in the Division 2 state tournament, faces top-seeded Glendale Nicolet in a semifinal game at 1:35 p.m. Friday.
“During the tournament run, I really wanted to win so he could watch us play a couple more times,” Vince Umnus said. “He’s never experienced a team like this. For us to get to state, and for him to be a part of it, is huge.”
Higgins closed out Tuesday’s event by flashing his “elk ears” gesture, and all the kids and players surrounded him and put a hand in the air for a final breakdown.
In a few years, those youth players might find themselves on one of Higgins’ posters.
For now, “Higgy” gets to enjoy at least one more game with his best friends.