My son David Perry is a high school football player. He’s stocky and strong, very social and respected by his peers. David also happens to have Down Syndrome.
Our neighbor always told him that he was “built to play football.” As David’s transition to ninth grade and the local high school approached, I asked him if he would like to try out for the football team.
When David responded that he did indeed want to play football with his peers, I contacted the football coaches to inquire about David’s participation. The coach was very welcoming in having David play and was very committed to know how he could help the experience to be successful for not only David but his other teammates. Unlike many of the other players who had been playing football since they were children, David had no other prior understanding or knowledge of the team.
I spoke with the ninth grade football coach, who explained that “all my players play,” that he wanted to gauge David’s capabilities, and that he was excited about his participation. He also communicated his expectations for players and the team’s day to day activities.
The conversation was a relief. I knew that the coaches’ open minds assured David would get a fair chance, although I was unsure of David’s abilities to play the game. My husband Dave and I made sure to lay out clear goals for our son’s participation: if David made the team, he would practice and attend all games, and would be challenged by the coaches.
Four hour preseason practices began in the long, hot days of August. I dropped David off at the field, suited up and ready to go. Dave observed practice to ascertain that things were running smoothly, but after a short time he felt confident that our son was safe and accepted.
David came home from practices tired and sweaty. He talked about his coaches and teammates and answered all of my questions (“Did you meet anybody new? Did anybody help you out? Do you want to keep playing?). Despite the strenuous practices, David explained that he did indeed want to continue playing.
However, after a few weeks the coach noticed that David often chose to sit out during practice, explaining that he was too tired to do the numerous drills, exercises, and stretches. The coach contacted us and explained that participating in warm up stretches was mandatory and that David was not always participating. However, the coach maintained a positive attitude about David’s participation and the team encouraged him throughout practice.
Dave and I had a conversation about the importance of participating in stretches and drills during practice, which was enough to make David “step it up” at practice.
I believe that David was observing and processing the routine while he was sitting out. There’s a whole routine involved at practice: stretching, running drills, etc. that David was unfamiliar with, and he needed time to get used to it. After awhile, the routine was his motivation.
The coach was dedicated to David’s participation, especially in the beginning when he opted out of full participation. The coach was constantly thinking of new ideas. They rethought David’s participation themselves, and would check in with ideas they came up with. They didn’t come to us with problems and expect us to know how to solve them. They figured it all out.
On the first game day of the season, David was introduced to the proud tradition of wearing his football jersey to school. He was more than excited to display camaraderie, belonging, and acceptance with his teammates and friends, which quickly became the most meaningful reward of playing on the football team.
David didn’t play in that first game of the season, but he did play in the second game and nearly every game thereafter. I was excited but nervous the first time David played. I was chatting with some of the other parents in the stands, when they suddenly told me that David just went in. The entire parent section cheered for him, but I was worried about the opposing team’s reaction.
But David’s participation was never an issue with any of the coaches, team members, parents, opposing teams, or referees. His first game and in fact every game went smoothly, and David quickly became a staple of the kicking team.
The most important and rewarding part of David’s participation on the football team was camaraderie among both the players and their parents. After David’s first game, a fellow parent was so pumped up that he wanted to contact a reporter so that everyone would know about David.
Hearing from other parents that their kids were sharing stories about David with them was great. They said that David has lots of energy and that he’s fun. Kids that age don’t usually talk to their parents about their friends, but they talked about David.
The friendships David developed were incredible. He talked about his friends at home, sometimes ate lunch with his teammates, went to the homecoming dance, and had friends over to hang out during winter break. Although David was on the ninth grade team, he also knew players on the JV and Varsity teams, so his circle of friends spread throughout the school.
David made an especially close connection with the team’s quarterback, Adam. David was like a magnet to Adam. Adam’s mom told me that her son looked forward to practice because David made it fun. Adam even went to one of David’s away basketball games over the winter, and David was thrilled.
At the end of the season, I thanked the team profusely for the great experience. I thanked the coaches personally and sent a letter to the superintendent of the school district about the great experience my family had with the football team. I thanked David’s teammates for their dedication, support, and open-mindedness.
Everyone, including David’s coaches and many of his teachers, credit his membership on the football team with making his transition to high school extremely smooth. Developing a huge network of friends and acquaintances throughout the school is important to any student starting high school.
David has not decided if he wants to play football again next season. The JV and Varsity teams are much different than the ninth grade team, but we are confident that David will be given as fair a chance as any other player trying out for the team.