Nolan couldn’t have been more than a few months old in 2006 when Cindy found a website that, after punching in a few numbers, guesstimated how tall your child would be by the time he or she reached adulthood. It was purely for entertainment purposes, but she thought it would be fun to participate in some fun, genetic-style fortune telling.
Her reaction to the answer she received – 6 feet, 6 inches – was one of surprise. The first thing that popped into my brain, and likely would have entered the noggin of countless other fathers across the globe? Superstar athlete in the making! He’s not even crawling yet, but he’s ready hit off a batting tee!
Never mind the fact that neither of us had relatives in our respective family trees nicknamed “Stretch” or “Bronco.” Nolan was born a big kid – 8 pounds, 6½ ounces, 20 inches tall – and he was going to be a big, powerful, unstoppable force no matter which sport he was playing. Football coaches simply would shrug when defensive backs looked to the sideline for guidance on how to stop the chiseled, sure-handed tight end from catching the ball and steamrolling them en route to the end zone. The only way to keep Nolan from recording nightly double-doubles during basketball season would be to get him into foul trouble.
I didn’t give a rip that he wouldn’t get into long-distance running, the only sport at which I’ve ever even come close to succeeding. There would be multiple varsity letters earned for excellence on the gridiron, the court, and the diamond. Maybe the possibility of media bias would prevent me in my duties as a sportswriter from covering my son’s games, but I would read with pride what my colleagues wrote about him. The possibility of maybe earning a college scholarship – even a partial one? Be still, my bank account.
I saw many of my dreams evaporate when Nolan was diagnosed with Autism in 2008, and the reality Cindy and I deal with is our son is nonverbal and will need lifelong care. I can’t remember when, but sometime after the diagnosis I realized sports – be they Pee-Wee League or varsity – were out of the question. To be honest, both Cindy and I drop things that are tossed to us when someone is standing three feet away, so Nolan wasn’t blessed with athletic prowess. But he wouldn’t get a chance to be the kid who worked his butt off in practice and got rewarded with a few minutes of playing time here and there. It seemed as though he never would get a chance to learn teamwork, or even to be part of something special.
Thankfully, that isn’t the case.
My son became a full-fledged high school athlete last Tuesday when he participated in his first Adaptive Sports League soccer practice, and overall he did a pretty good job. We had to miss Thursday’s practice due to a perceived toileting emergency that I found out didn’t exist when we got home. But barring unforeseen circumstances we will be back on Tuesday, as well as at every practice until soccer season ends March 4th.
The Adaptive Sports League gives students with physical and/or developmental disabilities opportunities their neurotypical peers enjoy. There typically are three seasons in a non-COVID landscape: soccer, floor hockey, and baseball (wiffleball). The high school Nolan attends is one of four area high schools in the ASL. There normally are regular-season games, playoffs, and a championship game in each sport (not to brag, but Nolan’s high school has won a few trophies over the last couple years). These young men and women take what they do very seriously.
Nolan participated in a three-week ASL camp in November 2019 when he was in eighth grade, getting a one-week taste of each of the sports the league offers. Based on the number of successfully completed activities – and a relatively low number of meltdowns and minimal amount of pain inflicted on dad – soccer was the sport Nolan seemed to enjoy the most. Two of his teachers complimented him last month during his IEP for taking a quantum leap in maturity as a student over the last year. It gave me hope that would mean he would participate in the ASL with minimal weeping and gnashing of teeth.
Based on what I saw at his first practice, I’m very encouraged:
He willingly participated in the warm-up drills, which included some running. All right, by running I mean walking somewhat quickly as I gently pulled him along, but he did it. And his teammates shouted encouragement to the new kid as he did so.
He willingly participated in the passing drills with a very nice, and very patient, teammate who went out of her way to make him feel welcome. Even when he was kicking the ball a little too hard and not always to its intended target.
He somewhat reluctantly transitioned back to the gymnasium after taking a lengthy bathroom break, but he tolerated me participating in a defensive drill with him.
He earned a nod of approval from the coach, who also has been his adaptive physical education teacher since middle school.
Cindy and I used to have a family membership with the local YMCA, and we registered Nolan for various adaptive sports programs a few times when he was in elementary school. A good day meant he was an active participant for half to two-thirds of a session. A bad day, such as the case was multiple times during baseball, meant one of the college students who was working with him would pull him on a scooter with a hula hoop when he pitched a fit or didn’t want to do something.
The only games Nolan and his teammates will play during soccer season will be intrasquad matchups. Wiffleball season is scheduled to start in early April, and the coach is hoping that, pandemic permitting, there will be actual league games. I’d like to believe Nolan will get a chance to play in an ASL contest – if not this spring, then definitely in the fall.
It will be a memorable moment for me if and when that occurs. Maybe Nolan never will make the game-winning catch as time expires, nor will he ever posterize some hapless defender as he dunks over him. But he’s getting an opportunity to play sports, and I couldn’t be happier.