About three million youngsters will play youth football in the United States this fall. Only one received sustained media coverage last month, and it was 10-year-old Deven Jackson, who took the field with the West Perry Midget Football Mustangs after a two-year absence from the gridiron.
In 2012, Deven was struck with meningitis. He suffered kidney failure, and his mother told ABC News that doctors gave him only a ten percent chance to live. Doctors amputated both legs six inches below the knees, and playing football seemed out of the question.
After several surgeries, Deven started learning to walk again with ordinary prosthetic legs. At a camp for children who have lost limbs, he tried another camper's carbon fiber running blades. He received a pair of blades donated by a person who was no longer using them, learned to run on them, and received medical clearance to return to football. The Huffington Post reports that, after wrestling last winter, he prepared for this fall's football season by working with a trainer three times a week all summer. He now plays with the running blades, padded to prevent injury to himself or others.
USA Football's Steve Alic says that, while Deven learns football, the other players learn from him. "It's something his teammates will remember for the rest of their lives. It will certainly foster a message of inspiration and real can-do spirit - that there's no reason to hold yourself back, especially if you see here's your teammate playing with two prosthetic legs."
"Because I Love It"
Stories of indomitable spirit in sports never lose their force, even when the stories profile athletes who are too young for a high school diploma. In early 2012, I wrote about four blind athletes:
- Eleven-year-old Wakana Ueda, who finished last in the Honolulu Marathon but, guided by her mother's voice, finished in a little more than 14 hours as spectators applauded along the grueling 26.2-mile course.
- Fifteen-year-old Little Leaguer Doug Wells, whose coach said that he "never let his disability become a disability," pitched a no-hitter.
- Fifteen-year-old Taylor Howell, the starting center on his high school's junior varsity football team, "gets banged up every day, but still hangs in there," according to an admiring teammate.
- Sixteen-year-old Sami Stoner ran junior varsity cross country with her guide dog "because I love it."
Later in 2012, I wrote about Matt Woodrum, who has spastic cerebral palsy. In his elementary school's annual track and field day, the 11-year-old finished last in the 400-meter race (about a quarter of a mile), a few minutes behind the other runners who had already returned to the sidelines. Matt's teachers said they would excuse him from running, but he turned them down. Instead, he crossed the finish line with encouragement from his gym teacher and cheering classmates.
Last year, I wrote about 11-year-old Ben Baltz, a bone cancer survivor whose prosthetic right leg broke when its screws came undone during the one-mile run, the final event in a youth triathlon event. He was assisted to the finish line by a Marine who was helping to conduct the competition. Ben also plays soccer, baseball and basketball.
On the Same "Team"
What all these stories share is a sometimes unarticulated, but nonetheless important, common denominator: none of these determined athletes sought or received preferential treatment, but each one received encouragement from family, coaches, administrators, teammates, and opponents. Their opponents did their best to win, but all players are on the same "team" when one player confronts physical barriers to participate. The impulse is called "respect," and serious athletes know what it means.
The late actor Christopher Reeve, a quadriplegic for the last nine years of his life after an equestrian accident, said that, "A hero is an ordinary individual who finds the strength to persevere and endure in spite of overwhelming obstacles." Deven Jackson, and many other youth athletes like him, fit the bill because they find the strength to persevere and endure in spite of overwhelming obstacles that most players never experience and rarely think about.
Society mislabels these youth leaguers as "handicapped" or "disabled." They are better seen as athletes with "special challenges" because summoning the strength to meet challenges defines the essence of sports.
Resolute 10-Year-Old Returns to Football Field After Double Leg Amputations, The Huffington Post (Sept. 19, 2014), http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2014/09/16/deven-jackson-football_n_582318... Barbara Miller, "Inspiring" Boy Playing Football With Prosthetic Legs Might Be Unique in the Nation (Sept. 14, 2014), http://www.pennlive.com/midstate/index.ssf/2014/09/prosthetic_running_bl... ; Meredith Engel, Pennsylvania boy, 10, back to playing football after meningitis leads to double amputation, N.Y. Daily News, Sept. 15, 2014, http://www.nydailynews.com/life-style/health/boy-playing-football-mening....