HOWARD CITY — Anthony Ianni stands 6 foot, 9 inches tall in his size 18 shoes.
He says the challenges and obstacles he faced in life were even taller than him, “and I’m pretty sure they wore bigger shoes.”
Ianni, a former Michigan State University basketball player, led an assembly Tuesday for Tri County Area Schools. He shared his story about living with autism — first at Sand Lake Elementary School, then at Tri County High School, where he met with the school’s peer to peer group — which helps high school students connect with disabled students for support — before leading a high school assembly.
The event was part of Ianni’s “Relentless” tour, a Michigan Department of Civil Rights initiative to eradicate bullying in Michigan and beyond. Cory Mead, the speech therapist for Tri County, was instrumental in bringing Ianni in as a speaker.
“It was really cool for our kids to hear someone they could relate to,” Mead said. “It was an honor to have him here.”
“When a motivational speaker can have 650 students sit compassionately in an assembly for an hour, you know the message was meaningful,” added Tri County High School Principal Tim Goheen.
At age 4, Ianni was diagnosed with pervasive developmental disorder, which is on the autism spectrum. Doctors and specialists told Ianni’s parents, “Don’t expect him to do much in life,” including graduating from high school or living independently.
Ianni’s parents decided to fight back against this expectation, and they instead worked to instill encouragement and motivation into their son.
“I had to work hard at everything, from basketball to my social life,” Ianni said. “I had great parents and great teachers who supported me.”
Ianni graduated from Okemos High School and went on to earn his bachelor’s degree in sociology from Michigan State University, where he is the first known athlete with autism to play Big Ten basketball. Ianni played for coach Tom Izzo, winning two Big Ten championships, a Big Ten Tournament title and was a member of the 2010 Final Four team.
Now 27 years old, Ianni is a husband, father and traveling motivational speaker. But his accomplishments didn’t come easy.
As a child and teenager, Ianni was bullied and teased, not only for being autistic, but also for his height (he was already 6 feet tall at the age of 11). Peers often tricked him into embarrassing or painful situations.
Ianni recalled one specific day when he’d had enough and wanted to respond with violence against a particularly cruel classmate, but he remembered the lessons his parents had taught him and decided to let his actions speak louder than violence ever could.
Ianni began to earn respect from his peers on the basketball court, where his height was a coveted asset. He became more confident in speaking up and standing up for himself, and for other friends who were being harassed.
Ianni shared his three keys to success with students: Be motivated, work hard and have a support system.
“This generation is too scared, too cool to ask for help or advice,” he told students. “You think you know everything. You don’t know everything. You guys can’t be scared. You’ve got to go to your family and teachers for guidance. They are the key to being successful and achieving in life.”
Ianni reminded students that some of today’s best known celebrities were once victims of bullying when they were children simply because they were “different.” He said his favorite school visits are ones that end with one student apologizing to another for bullying and trying to make a fresh start.
“The change starts with you,” he said. “You will be the No. 1 reason for saving somebody’s life. You are part of the Tri County Vikings family. You’re in the same group, you’re part of the same team. Don’t disrespect that team.”
Follow Ianni on Twitter at @AI44LYD where he shares stories of hope using the hashtag #LYD (for “live your dream”), search for “Anthony Ianni” on Facebook or visit relentlesstour.com for more details.