The roaring in the stands at the Hendrickson High School football game in Pflugerville last week was so loud you could hardly hear the sound of the announcer reciting the nominees to the homecoming court.
Thousands of students chanted the names of the winners as they were announced — Ronnie Brown, Ari Licon and Chapman "Chappy" Ross, king, queen and junior prince — all three with Down syndrome.
Tears streamed down Ari's face as they put the crown on her head, her mother, Erica Licon, recalled.
"The environment of the stadium from start to finish was overwhelming from the moment we got there," she said. "Random strangers were telling her and us congratulations. Just the smiles on their faces, it was overwhelming."
Students say the movement to get the three nominated to the homecoming court began a couple weeks ago, starting when the dance team submitted Ari's name to the ballot. Erica Licon said when they called to tell her, she thought it was a joke.
"I know how kids can be. I was guarded," she said. "I didn’t want to get my hopes up and be disappointed in the end."
But Makayla Chamberlain, the student body president, said the social media campaign to get the three elected caught on like wildfire.
Hendrickson, a high school with 2,400 students, 200 of whom have special needs, last month was named among the five most inclusive schools in the nation by ESPN. In 2018, students elected a lesbian couple as the two queens of the court, in lieu of a king.
"The student body has been nothing short of amazing in the efforts to include everybody in all aspects of this campus," said Amy Wiesenhutter, Special Olympics coordinator and coach for the Pflugerville school district. "We can’t give enough credit to these incredible students."
On Friday night, nominees to the court walked onto the football field with their families.
LaTasha Rodgers, Ronnie's adult sister, said she was more nervous than her younger brother, who waved his hands in the air.
Ronnie and Rodgers lost their mom two years ago to cancer. Rodgers said she fought to keep him in the Pflugerville school district, because of how inclusive it is.
"I didn’t have to worry because I knew coming to Hendrickson every day, he was going to be embraced, he was going to be confident and he was going to be at home," she said. "It wasn’t just like he had a cheerleader — he had a thousand."
Ronnie said it "felt awesome" to win. He's been sleeping in his crown ever since.
"Every night, I go in and remove the sweat from his head and take the crown off," Rodgers said. "I did not see it coming at all. But the things that happen to him, I have now come to expect. I think he was born to make an impact on the world."
Erica Licon said she, too, was surprised when her daughter was named queen. Licon said when she learned Ari had Down syndrome after she was born, she worried about all the things her daughter wouldn't be able to do.
"This is one of those things I could never have imagined that I would be able to experience with her," she said. "All I can say is thank you, Lord."