*This article by By Bob Wojnowski
appeared in the Detroit News on December 22, 2002.
We reprint this inspirational story here with
permission from the Detroit News.
touchdown melts hearts
DETROIT--It was the final play
of a high school football game, a simple handoff,
a wobbly run that covered 49 yards in 12 seconds
and ended with tears and shouts and hugs and messages
that reverberate still, two months later. By conventional
standards, by the lopsided score and the anonymous
participants, it was a meaningless touchdown.
On the bigger scoreboard, it was the most extraordinary
touchdown of the year, maybe of any year. This
isn't about football, or even just about what
happened during that Oct. 18 game between McDermott
(Ohio) Northwest High School and Waverly (Ohio)
High School. It's about what has happened since.
It's about the ever-expanding ripples from a spontaneous
act that hit all the right chords -- sportsmanship,
inclusion, generosity, compassion.
Jake Porter, 17, carried the ball
and the message that evening. He wasn't sure which
way to head, but by the time he reached the end
zone, there wasn't a dry eye or a cynical heart
in the stands. This is the season of gifts and,
in case you missed it, relish the one delivered
by a mentally challenged kid gifted enough to
score, and by two coaches smart enough to know
it. "As I look back, I'm convinced, without
a shadow of a doubt, that was an act of God,"
Waverly Coach Derek DeWitt said. "It took
a child to deliver the message, to spread the
word. Sometimes He uses the smallest tools to
On Thursday, at halftime of the
Motor City Bowl at Ford Field, Jake and his Northwest
High teammates, as well as the Waverly team, will
be honored for participating in the smallest,
largest gesture of the sporting year. There are
plans for a movie. There have been reports on
all the TV networks, on radio shows, in Sports
Illustrated. Jake's mother, Liz Porter, still
trembles when she talks of the night that changed
her son's life, when two coaches and two teams
pointed Jake in the right direction, and he ran,
and everyone followed.
It happened at Northwest High in
McDermott, Ohio, with five seconds left and Waverly
leading, 42-0. Northwest Coach Dave Frantz had
talked before the game with DeWitt, Waverly's
coach, about letting Jake take a snap and kneel
with the ball. Jake, who was born with chromosomal
fragile X syndrome, a common cause of mental retardation,
had practiced with the team for three years, but
didn't play. He was a senior. It was his final
DeWitt agreed to the plan. He had
met Jake before the game and the kid's outgoing
personality had the effect it generally has. It
made DeWitt smile. Just before the final play,
Frantz called a time out and met with DeWitt at
midfield. This would be the kneel, if that was
OK. Absolutely OK, DeWitt said. The coaches headed
back to the sidelines. But after taking three
steps, DeWitt stopped, wheeled, and signaled for
another timeout. He called Frantz back over. "That's
not good enough" DeWitt said.
"Touching the ball isn't good
enough. He has to score."
"But you have a shutout," Frantz said.
"You don't have to do that. Jake can kneel
with the ball."
DeWitt said it again. "That's not good enough."
On the video, you see Jake's initial
confusion, as he takes the handoff and looks for
a safe spot to kneel. His teammates, the refs,
even the players from Waverly, all point downfield.
Jake moves forward tentatively, then turns back
to his team. Now, all 21 players on the field
are insistent. They point, they yell: "Run!"
The Waverly defense parts and Jake runs, haltingly
at first. At the 35-yard line, he slows and looks
over his shoulder. Players from both teams follow
behind. The crowd rises and roars. Players on
the sidelines hold their helmets aloft.
Jake doesn't look back again, not
until he crosses the goal line and thrusts his
right arm, as players race jubilantly to the end
zone. "I've never seen anything like it,"
Liz Porter says now. "The players were hugging
and slapping five with each other and the whole
crowd was going crazy. Except for the uniforms,
you'd never know there were two different teams
on that field." Ask DeWitt, 32, about the
widespread impact, and he has a theory. "I
think our nation was really crying out for something
like this," he said. "You have 9-11,
the threat of war, and everyone's looking for
relief. This was a reminder that we need to show
our good qualities, that we all have an obligation
to make this a better world." Ask Frantz,
37, what it means, and he chuckles. To him and
others at the school, where Jake long has been
a popular student, it didn't feel so momentous.
"Everyone's proud of Jake and proud of the
team, but at the same time, they're flabbergasted
this is so big," Frantz said. "Jake
has always been a part of us. Everybody is put
on this earth for a special purpose. Sometimes
you have to look harder to find it, but it's there."
The tide of phone calls and letters and TV crews
finally is slowing. Frantz relates his conversation
with 49ers Coach Steve Mariucci, who called after
hearing his players talking about the story.
DeWitt has been touched by the social
impact. He noticed, a few days after the game,
a group of quasi-tough kids at his school showing
two special-needs students how to shoot a basketball.
As the first African-American head coach in the
area, DeWitt wondered how he would be welcomed.
He wonders no longer, as people come up to him
in the grocery store and congratulate him.
For Liz Porter, a single mother
who has another son, Seth, 13, also afflicted
with fragile X, life has changed plenty, and then
again, not much. She still works long hours at
the coffee shop. She still isn't sure why so many
people connected with the story. After all, Jake
was just being Jake, and his friends were being
his friends. "Everyone has some sort of hardship,
but everyone also has a gift, if we'd just allow
them to show it," she said. "To me,
the neat thing was what Coach DeWitt did, when
he said taking a knee wasn't enough. He said he
wanted Jake to feel success, after watching other
kids score for so many years. The power that has
flowed from that is just amazing."
It still flows. Jeffrey Cohen of
the National Fragile X Foundation is helping the
family sort through the movie offers. Cohen, who
lives in Detroit, marvels at how a simple act
of inclusion could stir such emotions. After publicity
about the touchdown, the foundation's Web site
(www.fragilex.org) received 6,000 hits daily,
up from 300. Hidden in a nondescript Southern
Ohio football game was a gift, unwrapped by a
kid a little bit different, delivered by a couple
of coaches uncorrupted by competition, watched
by teammates and fans who won't ever forget what
they saw. Jake got the touchdown but everyone
else got the point, that differences in people
should be celebrated.
They say Jake has changed since
then, in a good way. He's more confident, although
mostly unaware of the significance of his run.
His playing days are over but he'll be on Frantz's
coaching staff next season. In the midst of a
telephone conversation, Frantz was interrupted.
Jake was in the room. He had something to say.
"It was a fun night," Jake Porter said,
before chatting excitedly about the upcoming bus
ride to Detroit. I asked him what he wanted to
be next, when football was over.
"A preacher," he said.
"I'm gonna be a preacher."
Perfect. His run has just begun.