Pat McCain and the rest of the players on the North Wildwood Beach Patrol’s team in the North Wildwood Recreation Department’s summer men’s basketball league remember well the first time Brian Stulz showed up to one of their games.
“We figured he was just coming to sit on the bench and cheer us on. Then all of a sudden he checked himself into the game,” McCain said.
He and his teammates laughed.
“We were all like, ‘OK, I guess he’s playing,’” said McCain, 21, a third-year lifeguard in North Wildwood.
Stulz is the longtime unofficial No. 1 fan of the North Wildwood Beach Patrol. The 39-year-old with special needs has been hanging around the lifeguards since the summer of 1993.
“I come back every year because they’ve been good to me,” said Stulz, flashing a smile almost as wide as the ocean those lifeguards protect.
Stulz, the adopted son of Bob and Joan Stulz, has a condition known as microcephaly, which, in simpler terms, means he has a small brain.
But according to those who know him, Stulz has a heart that’s larger than life.
“Every time he comes around, he literally brightens everyone’s mood,” said Julia Blackmon, 21, a Temple University student in her third summer as a lifeguard in North Wildwood. “We love it when he comes around.”
Stulz works four days per week at the Navy Depot, a short distance from his home around the Five Points area of Northeast Philadelphia. He spends his weekends in the summer at his family’s second home on 16th Avenue in North Wildwood. He gravitated to the beach and has developed a strong bond with the town’s beach patrol, as well as the visitors who use the beach.
Stulz has become so popular among the lifeguards that he’s even listed as a supervisor on the patrol’s assignment chart that hangs on a wall at its 15th Avenue headquarters.
“As a mother of a special needs child, you always want your child to be included and they have certainly included him in the beach patrol,” Joan Stulz said. “They’ve always made him feel welcome and they’ve done a lot to boost his social skills and improve his quality of life.
“He looks forward to it all year long. They’re an important part of his life. He looks forward to being on beach because he likes the camaraderie they have and going to all the competitions. He enjoys the whole beach experience.”
Wearing an official NWBP shirt, Stulz walks the entire beach each day. He often runs errands for the lifeguards, carries light equipment and gives pep talks to the patrol’s competitors ahead of lifeguard races. But his real value, according to the lifeguards, is the attitude he brings to the beach each day.
“He makes you feel so special,” said Shea McKinstry, 20, a third-year North Wildwood lifeguard and student at Penn State. “You know when you see him walking up to you that he’s going to be smiling. Everyone has bad days, but he never does. Even on my worst days, when I see him he cheers me up.
“He has nicknames for everyone on the beach patrol. He calls me ‘Sharky Girl.’ Whenever he calls me that I can’t help but smile.”
While there’s a certain prestige to lifeguarding on the beach, the long summer days can be a grind. The hot sun and the hours spent sitting on the stand watching the water and overseeing the beach can take its toll. The lifeguards say Stulz helps them stay motivated and sharp.
“Seeing him definitely puts things in perspective,” McKinstry said. “I’m grateful he has such a great attitude. He has such a presence about him. He makes you want to be happy. Little things that might bother a lot of people go right over his head. I try to be like him in that way.”
Stulz is a good athlete who competes in Special Olympics. In addition to basketball, he participates in volleyball, soccer, floor hockey and bowling. He won a gold medal with his soccer team at the Special Olympics World Games in 2001. He also played in the national games for basketball in 2014. In 1992, Stulz was named the Special Olympics Athlete of the Year for the Philadelphia area.
McCain and the other lifeguards on the basketball team quickly realized Stulz could help them. This summer he made three straight three-pointers in one game. He scored 10 points in another.
“The game he went 3 for 3 on ‘threes,’ the first one was awesome, the second one we were all like, ‘OK, is this a joke here?’ and the third one we were like, ‘OK, Stulz, way to shoot it,’” McCain said. “He can run around all game and he’s fast. He plays great defense, too.”
The North Wildwood Recreation men’s basketball league is rather competitive. But no matter if the lifeguards are ahead by 20 points or trailing by 10 points, Stulz always gets a few minutes of playing time in each half.
“We get phone calls from him in October about the next summer’s team, so you know how much he likes it,” McCain said. “Every game, we know this is one of the biggest things of his week, so we have to make sure he gets in the game. If we lose, we lose. It’s all good. But when he gets a basket? Everyone just goes crazy for him. When he gets his points, that means a lot to us.”
Stulz said he tries to model his game after point guard Ryan Arcidiacano, a member of Villanova’s 2016 national championship team who recently signed a tryout contract with the Chicago Bulls.
“I learned a lot by watching him,” Stulz said. “He’s my role model. He never gives up and he’s always passing to his teammates. I like the way he plays.
“I get better for my Special Olympics team by playing with the lifeguards. I work on things I’m not good at.”
Tony Cavalier, the chief of the North Wildwood Beach Patrol, said Stulz plays a role much more important than the willing volunteer even realizes.
“He’s an ambassador for our beach,” Cavalier said. “He walks the beach all day. Everyone knows him and everyone talks to him. He’s loved by every lifeguard who’s ever worked here. Always has been and always will be.”
Stulz’s participation in Special Olympics, his job at the Navy Depot and his volunteer work for the North Wildwood Beach Patrol have helped him enjoy a rather productive life.
“We adopted Brian when he was 6 and he’s come further than we ever thought he would after we first read his profile,” Joan Stulz said. “We didn’t know he could do all this. But we saw potential that maybe other people didn’t see. He’s certainly proven a lot of people wrong and has done very well. We couldn’t be more proud of Brian even if he was a Harvard graduate. He works hard, he plays sports with Special Olympics and everyone in North Wildwood loves him.”
Especially the lifeguards.
“They’re all very good to me,” Stulz said. “They’re like my brothers and sisters. We cheer on each other.”
Brian Stulz may have special needs. But that doesn’t stop him from making everyone around him feel special themselves.