Actually, We Should All Feel Sorry for the ‘Piggyback Bandit’

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28-year-old Sherwin Shayegan likes piggyback rides. He really, really likes them. So much so that he has been banned from five states for jumping on the backs of unsuspecting high school athletes. But the Piggyback Bandit, as he’s called, has been misunderstood. At least, that’s according to writer Bryan Curtis, who retraced Shayegan’s strange, epic travels for a brilliant expose on Grantland.

The Bothell, Wash. resident made national headlines earlier this year after an Associated Press story chronicled the piggybacking adventure that has led him to be banned from attending high school athletics events in Washington, Oregon, Montana, North Dakota, and Minnesota.  Shayegan would typically attend games—mostly basketball and football—and find ways to blend in, wearing the team’s jersey or sometimes posing as a water boy.

After the game, he’d strike. Sometimes he’d ask a player for a piggyback ride up front. Other times, he’d just jump on their back and hope for the best. Some found this strange act amusing, bizarre, but ultimately harmless. For others, it was a matter of concern for the safety of the players.

“When someone that weighs 240 pounds jumps on the back of a high school student, the potential is there for significant damage,” Helena, Mont. Municipal Court Judge Bob Wood told Shayegan in February. Wood fined Shayegan and sent him back to Seattle. However, it wasn’t before long that the Piggyback Bandit was back on the road.

Curtis visited Shayegan’s hometown and spoke with his mother, his employer, old classmates, and coaches and players who found their paths crossing with the bandit along his road trip, hoping to gain some insight into what can be considered one of the more bizarre acts of sports fandom in recent memory.

Some suggest that Sherwin’s piggybacking is a fetish of sorts. The Daily Beast reported in Feb.: “Shayegan’s now-defunct Facebook page read, ‘Give me a piggyback ride!’ and that he wants to meet ‘good looking boys. Preferably at libraries when no one else is around.’”

In fact, he did lure one 18-year-old football player to a library, Curtis writes. On September 14, 2009, Shayegan invited the player to the town library in Bonney Lake, Wash. under the pretense of an interview (which featured a bizarre questionnaire with questions like “Have you ever farted during a football game or practice?”). As the young man was leaving, Shaeygan jumped on his back for a piggyback ride.

Those who know the Piggyback Bandit, however, attribute his strange act as an attempt to belong, rather than a sexually motivated act.  “It’s almost a cry for help,” Shaeygan’s former boss at a clothing store tells Grantland.

Curtis writes:

“Though his exploits have been chronicled everywhere from Deadspin to the Daily Mail, the Piggyback Bandit has retained an aura of mystery. Sherwin Shayegan was born on March 31, 1981. His parents, Mohammad and Rana, are of Iranian descent. Sherwin’s mother says her son has Asperger’s syndrome, which is on the autism spectrum. This is important to understanding the Bandit — Sherwin has an astounding recall for athletes’ names and, as you’ll see, an ability to navigate the American heartland that would impress the editors of Lonely Planet.”

(READ: Autistic Man Survives Ordeal in Utah Desert)

Michele Schott, a former classmate of Shayegan, tells Curtis that he “stood out” at their high school, but his role as manager for various sports teams—football, soccer, track and field—helped him find his place:

“‘It helped him get into the social norm,’ Schott explains. It made a kid with Asperger’s feel he belonged. On Fridays, Vikings players would wear suits to school, and Sherwin would wear one right along with them.”

His piggybacking road trip across the Northwest is Shaeygan “trying to rejoin the social norm,” Curtis hypothesizes. “Sherwin Shayegan wanted to become the team manager to America.” Indeed, though he was ordered by a judge in Helena in February to return home and “behave himself,” he’s apparently back on the road, continuing his search for belonging.

The whole account is gripping, meticulously researched— a revelatory look beyond the “bandit” and into the human being who happens to love piggyback rides.

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