|Photo courtesy of Kyle Maynard|
At home I dreamed about being a professional athlete and playing on one of my favorite Atlanta sports teams. My dreams made me the star athlete who performed coolly under pressure; I’d imagine replacing John Smoltz as the clutch pitcher on the mound for the Atlanta Braves in the middle of their pennant race.
In my dreams, the only limitation was my imagination—the real world was different. I never thought the dream world, where I was the star, would be any different from the real world. In my mind’s eye, the only difference was that now I’d be playing for real.
The more stories I heard about how much fun my friends were having, the more I wanted to play alongside them. My passion for sports and my drive to succeed were enough, I told myself—I would stop at nothing in my pursuit to be a normal fifth-grade student and a great competitor.
More than anything else, I wanted to be the quarterback who dated the cutest cheerleader and became an icon among my peers. I was convinced that football was my avenue to reach out for those dreams.
My parents often had different emotions about my ambition to try new things. My father would dream alongside of me; my mother kept my feet on the ground. She told me to focus on the things I could do; my dad, like me, thought I could do more if I just worked hard enough.
My mom is as close to my heart as anyone else, but her fear of my disappointment has always clashed with my stubborn belief that I can do anything. No one wants to see their child’s passions lead to emotional letdown. She tried to teach me to see the success in whatever I did, even when I failed. She is a great supporter, and I’ve always valued her advice, even when my enthusiasm for things like football meant that I didn’t always follow it.
I couldn’t have been more excited when I brought home a flyer from school about the upcoming football tryouts. The teacher who passed me the flyer—after I asked her for one—was surprised to see me so animated about it. She obviously didn’t see me as a football player.
My mother couldn’t help but feel a twinge of sadness when she saw the joy in my face, because she knew the likelihood of my making the team wasn’t great. My dad was out of town at the time and he wasn’t there to fan my dream. So my mother and I had a long conversation about my expectations and the possibility of failure.
She made it clear to me that the odds were I’d end up as a water boy for the team, on the sideline instead of the field. But she thought I’d have fun, make a lot of friends by being a part of the team, and make my own contribution to it. I agreed with everything she said, silently knowing that I ultimately wanted to be an important athlete on the team.
My mom is much more social and outgoing than I am or my father is. Rather than just show up, she called the coach to ask him if I could try out. She made it clear that I was very different from other kids he had coached, but she never implied that I couldn’t be a player. Neither my father nor I would have had the guts to call the coach in the first place, but my mother did it out of her love for me. And while telling the coach I was different, she never said I couldn’t do what would be asked of me.
The next day, she took me to the tryouts. Football wasn’t her favorite sport, but it didn’t matter. Even then, I appreciated that very few mothers would have taken a disabled son to try out for a football team full of able-bodied kids; she did it out of love for me, and I loved her for it.
We drove into the community’s park for the first time and saw all of the football and baseball fields. The park was full of kids using the batting cages and basketball courts. My mom pushed me along in my wheelchair. When we got close to the field, I jumped out and ran to where the kids were gathered to try out for the football team. I was relieved to see a lot of my friends from school were at the tryouts too. I asked some of my friends about what I should expect. They told me about the drills, and I saw no reason why I couldn’t excel at them. I was a kid, I was finally at the football tryouts, and it was time for me to do my thing.
I was in a dead sprint in my bear-crawl stance, which means all four of my limbs were on the ground and I ran like an animal. Then suddenly, halfway through the first forty-yard dash, I ran into a big problem. The baggy t-shirt I was wearing slipped up my back and started to come off fast once I picked up speed. My arms were tripped up—so I immediately bucked myself up on my back legs and waved my arms to pull the shirt down.
As fast as I shot up to fix the problem, I was back down to the sprint. Everyone watching was impressed at the fact that I had run so fast, and there was a lot of applause coming from the parents on the sideline. The head coach came up to me after the drill was finished and told me he was very eager to have me play on his team.
I was incredibly thrilled to have done so well and shown everyone, myself included, that I could be a part of an organized and talented football team. We finished the tryouts with a couple of drills to test our agility, and I performed well. Then the coach directed prospective players about how to register for the team.
At the registration I had the opportunity to have a closer conversation with the coach, whose name was Tom Schie. He told me that I was picked for his team because of the ability I showed to play the game, and not for any other reason than that. Coach Schie also told me that he had a good idea of what position I’d be playing, but that I had to wait until the first day of practice to find out what it was.
Of course, I really assumed that I’d be the quarterback, and I chose number eight for my jersey because it was the same number of one of my sports heroes, Troy Aikman. I always loved Aikman’s toughness under pressure and ability to play through pain. Electrified for the season to start, I went home after the registration and patiently waited for the first practice.
I went to the store with my father, and we bought additional padding to help protect my arms and legs. Since I wasn’t able to wear shoes and I walked around on my arms, it was very important to have some type of protective covering on my limbs.
My dad decided to sew the ends of arm pads together to protect the ends of my arms and legs. After I got my shoulder pads and helmet, I couldn’t help but stare at the equipment pile for weeks, dreaming about the upcoming season.
The tryouts were in the beginning of the summer after fifth grade, but the season didn’t actually start until after school began again in the fall. For once in my life, I couldn’t wait for school to start.