HOLDEN -- When the Springfield football team is in action on Friday nights, you can be sure to find 23-year-old Shelby Billiot.

Before games, he makes the rounds to every Bulldog player as they stretch, trying to motivate them for the upcoming challenge ahead. During games, he passes out high fives and offers more motivational pep talks. He even takes time to wave at fans in the stands when they call his name.

For Billiot, the popular Springfield native who was born with Down syndrome, being an assistant coach for his alma mater is a dream come true.

But as excited as Billiot is to have his place on the team, the excitement from his players and fellow coaches may match his own.

“He’s got the greatest personality in the world,” said Springfield coach Ryan Serpas said. “He’s been on our sideline since he was 15, and we’re honored to have him be with us and be a part of our coaching staff. To call him “Coach Shelby” is special for me. The kids get excited to see him whenever he shows up on game day.

“It’s just special, and I hope we knows that it’s just as special for us as it is for him.”

For Billiot, a “proud” Springfield native who has Bulldogs memorabilia spread throughout his “man cave,” nothing compares to football season.

He started out as a waterboy for Springfield High in middle school before serving as team manager all four years of high school.

Then, just when he thought his time with the team had ended following his graduation in the spring of 2013, he was invited to be a part of the Bulldogs coaching staff, starting that fall.

Now, when the long, summer days start extending into the fall months — or football season — Billiot gets antsy.

“It’s amazing: When school starts, he starts watching that calendar,” his mother, Sheron Billiot said. “He knows that’s when football’s about to start. Then he starts asking when will he get his uniform.”

Sitting with his mother and personal care attendant Anita Vickery hours before Springfield’s season-opening game against Ascension Christian on Friday, Sept. 1, Shelby affectionately put on his blue coaching polo and hat, complete with the Nike logos and Springfield Bulldog pawprints.

The shirt and hat are two of his favorite articles of clothing, and he was still smiling wide as he wore them later that night under the bright Friday night lights.

That happiness tends to rub off on others, especially the players.

“The coaches tell me when he’s around, the players’ attitudes are just totally different,” Sheron said. “He encourages them he hugs them, he comforts them if they ever get hurt. So he’s there for them. He’s just real encouraging to the team.”

But Shelby’s time isn’t only consumed with football. As his mother says, “He’s got a lot going on.”

Aside from his duties with the football team, Shelby is currently enrolled in Southeastern Louisiana University’s Lions Connected program, which provides a personalized, post-secondary educational experience for individuals with intellectual disabilities.

He attends classes on SLU’s campus four days a week from 8 a.m. until 3 p.m. each day and learns life skills such as reading, writing, typing, speech while also taking classes in two areas that interest him above most others — coaching and weight lifting.

Shelby has only been on campus for two weeks, but he said he’s “loved” every minute of his college experience so far, especially since it was never expected to happen.

For someone with Trisomy 21-level Down syndrome, Shelby going to college always seemed like a farfetched possibility, but that was made even harder to cope with when he saw close friends leaving for college after graduating high school.

Shelby wanted to know why he couldn’t go with them, a tough question Sheron and her husband and Shelby’s father, Ray Billiot, didn’t have an easy answer to.

Then SLU kicked off its Lions Connected program in 2016, and it changed everything.

“I want him to experience as much as he can,” Sheron said. “He has friends like him who are sitting at home doing nothing, but I wanted more for him. He’s very outgoing, and he loves people. I just didn’t want him at home doing nothing. I want him living life.”

After missing school for more than three years, Shelby is happily back inside a classroom for 28 hours a week — but that still isn’t all he’s up to.

He works at Carter’s Supermarket off La. Hwy. 22 in Springfield, he serves as an usher for Sunday services at Celebration Church’s campuses in Denham Springs and Springfield, and in the spring, he is the “pitching coach” for the Springfield High baseball team.

He keeps quite the busy schedule and meets a good many people, but that’s how he likes it.

“He’s always doing something,” Sheron said. “He meets people from all over, people I don’t even know. He steals everyone’s hearts from the very beginning. Everybody in Springfield knows who Shelby is.”

And according to Sheron, not only does everybody know Shelby — they all love him as well.

“We’re very fortunate, because a lot of people with disabilities get bullied in school,” Sheron said. “But Shelby’s never experienced that. No one’s ever bullied him. He’s always had friends that took care of him and always watched out for him.

“Everybody just loves him.”

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