Monday, September 21, 2015

ON FOOTBALL AND AUTISM

When former NFL quarterback Rodney Peete rose from his chair and headed toward the podium to give his keynote speech at the Autism Alliance of Michigan’s annual Michigan Shines for Autism Gala, Peete’s autistic teenage son RJ smiled at my husband, who played with Rodney during his tenure at the Detroit Lions, and gave him a fist bump as if to say, My dad’s got this.

And Peete did: From the moment he uttered his first word, Peete held the audience captive as he took us all on the twisting, winding, and uncertain journey that is often all too familiar for parents of autistic children.
And although Peete was cool, composed, and tempered his story with just the right amount of humor and candor, there was absolutely no sugar-coating the gut-wrenching impact of the words a therapist hit him and his wife Holly with when RJ was only three:

The therapist said that RJ would never attend a mainstream school.

She said RJ would never speak.

And she said that he and Holly should probably resign themselves to the fact that RJ would never say "I love you."

Sitting mere steps away from the podium where Peete spoke were the parents of Jay Granger. Like Peete and his wife, the Grangers also know what many other parents of autistic children have since learned: You will be told your autistic child will not be able to do something, and then you will celebrate when they defy expectation.

That’s precisely what happened one night on the football field of mid-Michigan’s Mason High School, when the school was trailing their opponent, DeWitt, by 22 points.

Mason’s varsity head football coach Jerry Van Havel sent Jay Granger, who is autistic, onto the field with a special request: Let Granger run a few steps and then stop.

But DeWitt’s defense went a step further and allowed Granger to run the ball in for a touchdown, thereby making his lifelong dream come true.

“I don’t score touchdowns in football,” said Granger while being interviewed on Lansing, Michigan’s WLNS-TV for the station’s Player of the Week feature. “I really don’t have that much talent in the sport…[but] it’s one of the coolest things I’ve ever done in my athletic career!”

Also on the field that night was Coach Van Havel’s son, Mason High quarterback Jarrett Van Havel, who has been a close friend of Granger’s since first grade.

Granger has said that Van Havel pushes him in the classroom as well as in sports.

In turn, Van Havel credits Granger for supporting the team with his infectious positive attitude.

Together, Granger, Jarrett Van Havel, and Coach Van Havel were the recipients of the 2015 Autism Alliance of Michigan’s Courage Award.

This particular brand of fellowship – which is unique to team sports; particularly football – made it abundantly clear to me that autism affects everyone.

Not just those who are living with it.

And we all have a responsibility – and the power – to affect the landscape.

How cool would it be if our schools were filled with kids like Jarrett?

And if every night they went home to parents like Coach Van Havel?

We can do this by raising our children to be more tolerant of the challenges their autistic peers may face, and we can do this by offering empathy and support – no matter how small – to the parents of autistic children.

By the way, RJ Peete attends a mainstream high school (and rides the city bus to get there); he speaks just fine; and every single day, he looks his parents in the eyes and tells them, “I love you.”

At the end of the gala, when my husband told Peete that his favorite part of the speech was indeed the “I love you” part, I will never forget Peete’s response.

He said, “Remember what coach [the late Frank Gansz, special teams coach for the Detroit Lions] used to say? ‘Celebrate the small wins.’ Because they matter…and they’re important.”

* * *


Photo Credit: LK Photographic
Caption: Granger, Jarrett Van Havel, and Coach Van Havel are given the 2015 Autism Alliance of Michigan’s Courage Award by (from left) Detroit Lions defensive end Ziggy Ansah, RJ Peete, former NFL quarterback Rodney Peete, Coach Jerry Van Havel, Jarrett Van Havel, Jay Granger, former Detroit Lions offensive lineman Scott Conover, Detroit Lions head coach Jim Caldwell, Detroit Lions running back Joique Bell, and WJBK-TV Fox 2 Detroit sports anchor (and Detroit Lions Radio Network play-by-play announcer) Dan Miller.




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