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Frankie’s story: From Down syndrome diagnosis to college star

November 13, 2018

Frankie Antonelli

This is Frankie’s story -- the story of how a dedicated Duke doctor, a tenacious Wolfpack hoopster and an aspiring Clemson Tiger turned a Down syndrome diagnosis into a young man’s dream.

Frankie was the second of three boys for parents Frank and Deb Antonelli, who at first wondered if their son would ever be living the dream.

“I was generally scared, because I didn’t know how to navigate this world we weren’t prepared for,” said Deb Antonelli, Frankie’s mom and an ESPN/CBS basketball analyst.

Deb, whose last name was Mulligan when she lived in the Triangle, starred for Kay Yow and N.C. State before moving with her husband and kids to Charleston, South Carolina.

When Frankie was six, his parents discovered the Lenox Baker Children’s Hospital and Duke Down Syndrome Clinic -- and that’s where they met Dr. Priya Kishnani, or Dr. K.

Before meeting Dr. K, Deb said it felt like the world was telling Frankie he can’t, he won’t and he doesn’t.

“And I said [to the world] really?,” exclaimed Deb. “He can and he will and maybe you’re just not doing a good enough job recognizing it.”

“It’s a dream come true,” said Dr. K. “This is what my expectation is for children with Down Syndrome -- we just had to give them the opportunities to prove themselves.”

Frankie likes proving himself, so Deb brought him back and forth from Charleston, South Carolina to visit Dr. K in Durham for 11 years.

“It was an empowering feeling of, ‘I’m doing the right things. I am making the right choices,’” said Deb.

Now, at age 20, Frankie is a sophomore in a cutting-edge program for students with special needs called Clemson Life. His best friend is Clemson football coach Dabo Swinney.

“I am a full-time college student -- I do everything college students do,” Frankie said. “I live on campus. I like getting good grades, I like my cooking class. I have the best teachers. I am living the dream.”

“I want to help them be young adults who actually teach us a few things -- and I think Frankie has done all of that,” said Dr. K.

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