The kid is only 17 and he has more than a few strikes against him.
He is mentally retarded.
His name is Jake Porter and he loves football. But Jake has a few problems. For example, he can’t read, and he can barely write his own name.
In spite of all this, this young man has given a great many people a reason to smile, to cheer, to believe in the goodness of life . . . and of people.
Jake lives in McDermott, Ohio, where he has been part of the Northwest High football team. Part of the team in the sense that he was always on the practice field with them, would run, not walk, from his special ed class to the practice field or the gym, or the track. He would seldom miss a practice, whether for football, basketball, or track.
Jake was always there.
So what was Jake Porter doing in a football uniform? On the football field?At the end of the game?
His team, Northwest, was being swamped by Waverly High 42-0.
As a reward for his loyalty, the coach and team had voted to let Jake suit up, to come out near the end of the game, take a handoff from the quarterback, then take a knee, letting the clock run out and end the game.
But sometimes plans change.
With only seconds left in the game, Northwest’s coach, Dave Frantz, called time out, went to the opposing team’s sidelines to talk to Waverly’s coach, Derek Dewitt. The conversation completed, Frantz returned to his own sidelines.
Dewitt, the coach for Waverly, after having met and agreeing with the Master Play with Coach Frantz, called his team together and said: “They’re going to give the ball to number 45. Do not touch him. Open up a hole and let him score.
Derek Dewitt is the first black coach in the history of a conference along the Ohio-Kentucky border. It sometimes takes time for a coach to make a name for himself in an area that had not been all that friendly in years gone by to folks who were black. Yet, here was a coach who was voluntarily giving up a shutout for some white kid that he’d only just met briefly.
The football game restarted with Jake being put into the game and given the handoff by the quarterback. He started to take a knee, just as he had practiced all week. But his teammates stopped him and told him to run. Jake did what he was told. But he ran in the wrong direction. Someone got him turned around and he began to run back the right direction.
And then it happened. The Waverly defense parted like the ocean. And Jake ran. Oh, how he ran! And he had the biggest grin on his face, running all the way to the end zone for the touchdown!
Twenty one players, all standing on the football field, cheering Jake on.
The grandstands were full of people, many of whom were crying, many of whom were cheering the new found hero. Moms and Dads, neighbors, home spectators, and visitor alike. There wasn’t a dry eye in the house.
Players on the field and on the sidelines all lifted their helmets and cheered Jake.
Jake’s mom, Liz, a single parent and a waitress in a restaurant, went over to and tried to thank Coach Dewitt, but she was so overcome with joyous emotion she couldn’t find any words.
Coach Dewitt said: "I met Jake before the game, and I was so impressed. Taking a knee just didn't seem good enough. I wanted to let the kid have his moment of glory.”
After the game, after the tears had dried, the cheers had faded away, there came to be some criticism. Some sports reporters grumbled that it ought not to have happened; that football was meant for healthy and able athletes.
One reporter, Mark Madden of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette wrote: “if the mentally challenged want to participate in sports, let them do it at the Special Olympics. Leave high school football alone.”
To Mr. Madden, we say, “Bah, Humbug!”
We choose to think that this is probably a tad bigger than that sometimes silly game of football. We have noticed that no matter how big the game is, no matter how big the rivalry is, that if a team loses a game, somehow the world manages to go right on turning. Babies are still born, puppies are still cute, and good food still tastes yummy.
And, indeed, it was noticed in both towns that people just started treating each other a bit better.
Says Coach Dewitt: "I have this bully in one of my phys-ed classes. He's a rough, out-for-himself type kid. The other day I saw him helping a couple of special-needs kids play basketball. I about fell over."
And Jake? Has being a football hero gone to his head? Naw. Jake is still Jake. He is happy, carefree, always smiling. He has enjoyed his moment in the sun and his touchdown that won the game.
Well, okay, it didn’t win the game, but it avoided a shutout. Jake thinks he scored a comeback touchdown that won the game, but let's keep that to ourselves He thinks he’s a hero . . . and you know what? He is.
"He didn’t sleep at all that night," Jake’s mother said. "And it’s crazy, because everybody feels connected to it. This was just something that was good for the team, and now it’s turned out to be something good for the all of us.
He’s the reason folks are treating each other so much better. Northwest football coach Dave Frantz and Derek DeWitt of Waverly, and their teams, restored our faith back into the human condition.
~ Written by James Walker who covers high school football for The Herald-Dispatch in Southern Ohio ~