ATLANTA -- When Reece Blankenship sees his friend Matt Olson, he’ll hold his hand for a long while, rubbing his finger along the calluses that have formed from years of gripping the baseball bat. He’ll stare in wonder at those tools the Braves’ first baseman has used to become one of the most productive sluggers in MLB.
Matt’s hands have long been a source of fascination for Reece, ever since the two became buddies in high school.
“When I was growing up, I always had some sort of ball in my hand, just kind of flipping it around,” Olson says. “Reece was always amazed by the hand dexterity that I had. … To him, the motor skills are amazing.”
Reece has non-speaking autism, and his lifelong condition leaves him with little authority over his body movements.
But in recent years, as Matt had a baseball breakthrough to become an MVP-caliber player, Reece had a communication breakthrough that allowed him to pursue the dreams once locked inside him.
Now, these pals are both using their hands to make an impact -- the 29-year-old Matt with that booming bat vying for the MLB home run crown, and the 28-year-old Reece with the letterboard he points to when spelling out his ideas for how to empower, accept and advocate for those on the spectrum.
This heartwarming friendship, which is documented in a new MLB Network feature “Unspoken Bond,” is helping to improve the lives of others.
When Matt was still with the Oakland A’s, he was an early supporter of ReClif, the business and charity Reece founded to help autistic people and their families. And because of the trade that brought Olson to his hometown team last year, he has been able to ramp up that support by organizing a major fundraiser for ReClif and providing Braves tickets for autistic individuals and their families.
This good citizenship earned Olson the Braves’ 2023 Roberto Clemente Award nomination.
“Matt and I have connected on a different plane,” Reece writes. “We each see the deeper being.”
For the first 19 years and 11 months of his life, Reece could not communicate such a powerful proclamation of friendship … or anything else. He was, as he writes now, “trapped inside a nightmare,” fully capable of understanding the world around him, yet unable to transmit his thoughts.
Reece’s condition is not uncommon. According to the National Autism Association, 1 in 36 children are affected by autism, and about 40% of those children do not speak.
That didn’t stop Matt from befriending Reece, his fellow classmate at Parkview High School in Lilburn, Ga., just outside Atlanta.
At the time, Reece was diagnosed to have the intellectual capabilities of a 3-year-old. He needed a lot of attention. With few autism services available at the time and the cost of professional therapists difficult to manage, Reece’s mother, Lou, and father, Jeff, would hire local teenagers -- often, athletes -- to work with Reece and meet his goal of 36 hours of therapy per week.
The students were trained to engage in “play therapy,” helping Reece with learning activities, exercise (walking, biking, swimming, shooting baskets, throwing and kicking balls), writing, coloring, etc. Matt’s older brother, Zack, initially did the job. When he graduated, Matt, who had grown up with Reece’s older sister, Daron, took over.
“It was an eye-opening experience for me,” Matt says.
Because Reece cannot speak or control his movements, he will sometimes make loud noises or bite his own hand when coping with anxiety or excitement. You can imagine how these quirks of his condition would be received by the average high school student unaccustomed to them.
From the beginning, though, Reece’s family noted how naturally comfortable Matt was around Reece.
“Watching them interact, especially when a lot of people are around, you would think that Reece isn't even paying attention to Matt,” Lou says. “Then, you will notice that Reece is standing closer to Matt or grabbing his hand or arm. Or Matt will put his arm around Reece’s shoulder. As a mom, I can just see the non-verbal energy between them.”
The friendship continued after high school. When Matt was a Minor League player with the A’s, his season would wrap up just as Reece’s siblings were venturing off to college in the fall. So Matt would serve a brotherly role for him.
“I would get Snapchats from [Matt] of him and Reece together,” says Daron, Reece’s sister. “It was just very pure, very genuine, and it was so nice to know that, while you’re away, somebody was still there with my brother, being a good person for him.”
For many years, the “non-verbal energy” was the extent of the friendship.
Then, in 2014, Reece had a quantum leap in communication that caught everyone in his orbit -- including Matt -- by surprise.
Reece’s parents took him to a “spelling to communicate” workshop where autism patients are taught the motor skills to point to letters on a board to spell words. Reece had done quite a bit of practicing via home-based therapy in the weeks leading up to that moment, yet what came out of him in those few days was nothing short of extraordinary.
The breakthrough came early in the workshop.
“We’re going to talk about astronomy,” one of the therapists said to Reece. “Do you know anything about that?”
Reece began pointing to letters on the board, spelling out a complete sentence:
“I know Copernicus advocated that the Earth revolves around the sun.”
Lou and Jeff looked at each other in amazement. Doctors had told them their son had the intellectual equivalent of a toddler. But in that moment, he showed he had so much more to offer.
“The joke's on us,” says Matt, “because Reece is probably the smartest person in the room.”
What has followed, over the last nine years, is an inspiring story about the young man who was finally able to convey his dreams and the big leaguer who helped him pursue them.
As Reece began using a letterboard -- and, subsequently, a keyboard -- to reveal ideas he had for a treatment and fitness center for people on the spectrum and others who need individualized attention, his parents began to draw up a business plan.
The resulting facility is named ReClif -- for his first and middle name, Reece Clifton. Since it opened its doors in Peachtree Corners in early 2018, ReClif has served hundreds of clients with therapy options that include personalized exercise classes, therapeutic yoga, spelling-to-communicate coaching, specialized learning seminars and other offerings.
To launch the business, Reece had solicited support on GoFundMe in 2017. The first donation was a $5,000 submission from his friend Matt, then a rookie with the A’s. Matt, his brother and some of their friends also helped move equipment and furniture into the facility when ReClif signed its first lease.
“It’s a very easy decision,” Olson says, “to give back to somebody that I care greatly about, for a cause that I care greatly about and a family that I trust is here to do the right thing for other people.”
When Matt was traded to the Braves and signed a long-term extension with them prior to the 2022 season, no one was happier than Reece. Not only could he connect with his friend more frequently, but Matt’s platform with the local MLB team has given ReClif additional exposure.
ReClif launched a charitable arm, named ReClif Community, that raises funds for patients who lose access to many publicly funded programs after high school and for families enduring the high costs of caring for those with autism. In January, Matt and his wife, Nicole, held their inaugural Diamond Casino Night at Truist Park and raised more than $250,000 for ReClif Community, with plans already in place to hold the event again in 2024.
When Reece attended Matt’s Opening Day debut with the Braves in 2022, he had to leave Truist Park after three innings because of the sensory overload of the loud music, flashing lights, concession smells and the general electricity in the air as the team celebrated its World Series championship.
Recently, though, Reece achieved a milestone by making it through an entire Braves game. Throughout the game, his parents reminded him, “If you make it to the end, you get to go see Matt!”
So when the game ended, Reece made his way downstairs to the area outside the Braves’ clubhouse. There, as usual, he held his friend’s hands and studied them for a while.
Olson also donates 1% of his salary to the Atlanta Braves Foundation, and that contribution led to the creation of “The Matt Pack” -- a program that invites families impacted by autism to enjoy a complimentary, sensory-friendly game experience at Truist Park.
The six seats were personally selected by Matt and Reece and are located in a handicap-accessible area that gives attendees room to stand up, pace or jump up and down without interrupting the experience of others. The seats are also conveniently located close to a quiet space that offers bathroom access away from crowds and a respite from the noise of the ballpark.
Reece’s family knows too well how difficult attending a game can be without that kind of support.
“Reece has very severe sensory sensitivity,” says Lou, “especially with auditory and visual stimulation.”
Reece has long been amazed at what those hands can do with a baseball and a bat. But now, with the help of his letterboard, his family and his longtime friend Matt, Reece has proven his own hands are pretty powerful, too.
What follows is the full written interview we conducted with Reece Blankenship about his special friendship with Matt Olson. Reece typed his answers on a wireless keyboard that connects to a notes page on his iPad.
How important is Matt’s friendship in your life?
REALISTICALLY FRIENDSHIPS FOR THOSE LIKE ME ARE VERY UNIQUE AND SOMEWHAT DIFFICULT FOR NEUROTYPICALS TO COMPREHEND. MATT AND I FORGED OUR FRIENDSHIP DURING MANY HOURS SHARED TOGETHER WORKING ON THERAPY MOTOR SKILLS, BUT MY FAVORITE TIMES WERE SPENT WALKING FOR MILES IN COMPANIONABLE SILENCE. MATT AND I CANNOT CHAT ON THE PHONE, EASILY TEXT, OR SHARE A BEER IN A LOUD SPORTS BAR LIKE MOST GUYS. BUT MATT AND I HAVE CONNECTED ON A DIFFERENT PLANE AND WE EACH SEE THE DEEPER BEING. I HAVE SAID MANY TIMES BEFORE THAT OUR FRIENDSHIP TRANSCENDS TYPICAL SPEECH. THIS FRIENDSHIP IS ESPECIALLY IMPORTANT BECAUSE IT GIVES ME FAITH THAT MY TRUE SELF IS VALUED IN SPITE OF MY UNRULY BODY.
What makes Matt a good friend?
FIRST OFF FOR ME, MATT IS A GOOD FRIEND BECAUSE HIS UNWAVERING ABILITY FOR CALMNESS IS THE PERFECT FOIL FOR MY UNPREDICTABLE SELF. HE IS WITTY AND INTELLIGENT. HIS WIFE NICOLE IS OF THE SAME ILK AND THEY MAKE A GREAT DUO.
MATT IS SELF ASSURED WITHOUT BEING COCKY AND I SO MUCH ADMIRE HIS ATHLETIC PROWESS. WHILE GROWING UP IT NEVER HURT TO HAVE FRIENDS LIKE MATT WHO WERE BIG, STRONG, AND WELL RESPECTED IN OUR SCHOOL. THIS STILL HOLDS TRUE IN THE REAL WORLD TODAY.
What has Matt meant to ReClif?
MATT BELIEVES IN ME AND HAS CONSISTENTLY SUPPORTED MY VISION FOR BOTH RECLIF AND RECLIF COMMUNITY. MONETARY CONTRIBUTIONS ASIDE I THINK HIS LOYALTY TO ME, RECLIF AND RECLIF COMMUNITY CERTAINLY MAKES OTHERS AT LEAST TAKE NOTICE AND POSSIBLY INQUIRE DEEPER THAN THEY MIGHT HAVE. NICOLE HAS ALSO EMBRACED ME AND MY VISION AND HAS BEEN INSTRUMENTAL IN ASSISTING MATT IN ADVANCING OUR CAUSE THROUGH DIAMOND CASINO NIGHT. WORKING WITH MATT AND THE BRAVES FOUNDATION ON PROVIDING THE MATT PACK SEATS TO FAMILIES IMPACTED BY AUTISM HAS BEEN REMARKABLE AND SO REWARDING.
What have you thought of Matt’s season?
YOU MAY KNOW THAT I HAVE ALWAYS DONE PRESEASON STATS FOR MATT AND FOR MOST YEARS I HAVE BEEN DANG CLOSE. THIS YEAR MATT IS SURPASSING EVEN MY HIGH PREDICTIONS. SINCE HE HAS ALREADY CRUSHED THE 42 HRS I PREDICTED I ALREADY GAVE HIM PERMISSION TO MAKE MY GUESSES LOOK FOOLISH. LIKE I RECENTLY WROTE TO MATT -- SOMETIMES CHEMISTRY MAKES STATISTICAL ANALYSIS GO AWRY. SO SWING AWAY WITH HAPPY HEARTS AND ENJOY THE STRONG VIBE THIS TEAM IS CREATING.