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Autistic football player's dream comes true

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You would think it’s a cliche, the story of a player with some disability who is put into a youth-level game and is allowed to do something spectacular, thus teaching everyone involved the meaning of sportsmanship.

But every time I see one, it really gets to me. I dare you read the story about Winfred Cooper and stop yourself from welling up.

From the Daily Herald in Arlington Heights, Ill. (hat tip: Hilary Shenfeld, the Suburbanista):

During a junior varsity football game between Elgin and Lake Park high schools, Elgin would sometimes put in a player who lined up far off the line of scrimmage.

Lake Park coach Nana Agyeman noticed this, and during halftime, he talked to Elgin’s head coach, Dave Bierman, about it. He learned the player, Winfred Cooper, has severe autism.

“Well,” Agyeman told Bierman, “if you want to throw him the ball, just let us know.”

Bierman was skeptical, questioning whether Cooper would catch the ball. But he and the coaches decided to give him a shot. After all, Cooper is a beloved member of the team, it’s his senior year and he rarely gets to play.

So the coaches from both teams concocted a play called “Driver Driver,” named after Green Bay Packers wide receiver Donald Driver. In the second half of the Sept. 12 contest, with Lake Park leading by a score of 6-0, Cooper was put in the game.

The Driver Driver play was called. The ball was snapped. Cooper ran to an open spot, and a wobbly pass was thrown his way.

The coaches cringed as their eyes followed the ball into the air. Cooper extended his arms … and caught it.

Elgin’s sideline erupted with cheers, and his teammates jumped up and down and screamed as Cooper raced full-sprint down the field. The fans, and even the Lake Park coaches, were cheering, too.

Cooper wove past a few Lake Park defenders, avoided a well-choreographed tackle attempt by Lake Park’s Mike Schenone, and went 67 yards into the end zone to tie the game 6-6.

All of Cooper’s teammates ran into the end zone after him, jumping up and down and slapping his helmet. The coaches choked back tears as they watched Cooper celebrate in the end zone with his teammates, doing his trademark dance, something called “The Winfred Shuffle.” Some players danced along with him.

The story goes on to say that Cooper got the game ball, which he sleeps with. He has watched the play dozens of times. He was the BMOC after the touchdown.

Cooper himself is an amazing story. According to the Herald, he was diagnosed with autism at age 2, but his father pushed eventually to have him in mainstream classes. With the only concession being extra time for tests, Cooper has a 3.6 grand-point average, runs track, works in the lunchroom, leads his football team in prayers and raises money for autism-related causes. He is a member of the National Honor Society. The touchdown was but a great feather in the cap of a wonderful high-school career.

Something like Cooper’s touchdown doesn’t happen without coaches who recognize that sometimes sports is about more than winning and losing, and are willing to do whatever it takes to impart that lesson to their players. From the Herald:

Given all the bad sportsmanship that’s made headlines recently, the coaches saw this as a teaching opportunity for the players. It taught them that winning doesn’t matter if you can provide someone with a moment like that.

“There was a greater victory that morning,” Lake Park head coach Andy Livingston said.

Lake Park did end up winning the game 13-6, and afterward, Livingston couldn’t hold back tears as he talked to his players. He shared the words Bierman said to him after the game: “Thank you. You made that young man’s career.”

“I’ve been doing this a long time, and I don’t think I’ve ever seen anything cooler than this,” Livingston said. “Vince Lombardi would crack a smile, and probably a tear, at this.”

The lesson goes beyond just the team, judging by this comment on the Herald story.

Hello everyone,

My little Brother is Mike Schenone, the cornerback covering Cooper. When mike told me the story about what happened I personally did not think it was that big of a deal. It sounds allot like his personality. In fact, my family was giving him a hard time for missing the tackle, joking of course. However, after reading this article and seeing your comments from another point of view, I truly realized how blessed I am to be able to say “that is my brother”.

Excuse me, I think I have a little something in my eye.

Written by rkcookjr

September 23, 2009 at 12:49 pm

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