GOOD NEWS

*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.

Unique 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 awaken people."

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 game.

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.

 

 

 
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