Monday, October 17, 2011

football player with Down syndrome inspires, makes social transformation


The Yulee High School football team calls it the "victory" formation. Every football team has one. And every football coach goes into every game hoping to use it.

It's typically the most mundane play of the game. A quarterback kneeling down. The final seconds ticking off the clock. The victory becoming official.

But it's also a play that inevitably unleashes emotions that have been building. And on many levels, that was the case two weeks ago at Jackson High School. With the Yulee Hornets leading 40-26, Coach Bobby Ramsay went over to the player wearing jersey No. 30.

"Jake," he said. "Put your helmet on."

Jacob Martin, a 5-foot-4 and 143-pound senior, slipped on his helmet. His coach helped him buckle his chin strap and put in a mouthpiece.

"What if he gets hit?" other players asked.

"Well, that's why he has pads on," Ramsay said with a smile.

Jake's sister, Hannah, and other members of the band broke into cheers, which spread into the stands.

As he ran onto the field, lining up at wide receiver near the Yulee sideline, his parents were among those standing. Through the years, Jack and Kelley Martin had been in many stands for many games. Jake's older brother, Zach, used to play linebacker for the Hornets and was in the middle of plenty of big plays. But it's safe to say none was quite like this one.

The victory formation.

The fans chanting Jake's name.

"I thought, 'Oh, my gosh. You don't even know what this means to a mom who was told different milestones wouldn't be met by him, that he probably won't be able to jump or ride a bicycle ...,' " Kelley Martin said. "And yet here's a boy who's out there because of the worth his coach sees in him - and the whole stadium recognizes that."

You undoubtedly already figured out that Jacob Martin is different from his teammates. Some of them practically were born to play football. He was born with Down syndrome. And his parents were told not to expect him to play much of anything.

But he's always been energetic and active. In a family of four kids - three boys, one girl - the two older brothers grew up playing together. And Kelley Martin swears that it wasn't until Zach got into middle school that he realized his little brother had some limitations.

Jake still doesn't see it that way.

He used to eat breakfast most mornings with Ramsay in the school cafeteria. And last year he kept telling the coach that he was going to play football. He couldn't see any reason why he wouldn't play.

He had spent quite a bit of time around the team when his brother was playing. He wore a jersey with Zach's number, stood on the sideline and helped out. When the Hornets would score, he would drop and do push-ups with the mascot.

So his dad, an English teacher at Yulee High, and Ramsay began talking. And in the spring, they went ahead and got him equipment.

"I think I was probably a little more worried than I should have been," Ramsay said before a recent practice. "When he gets out there, he really is one of the guys. They pressure him to keep up. And they'll mess with him when he spends too much time talking to the water girls."
The coach looks over at Jake, who is sitting next to him, and teases him.

"He's a fan of the water girls," he says. "I have to get on you sometimes, don't I?"

Jake grins. Hannah adds with a laugh, "Jake knows no strangers." The coach says that Jake doesn't eat breakfast with him anymore.

"Since he's become a member of the team, he blows me off and sits with the players," he says. "Initially, he was kind of a shy kid. But he's really adjusted."

To say the least. There has been a social transformation. And not just for Jake. For his teammates. Yes, he's different from them. But he's also like them.

His mother recalls a game a few weeks ago. She was sitting in the stands, watching the other boys interacting with her son. One of the star players plopped down on the bench next to him. He put his arm around Jake. She was struck by how natural it seemed, how the other player wasn't acting like Jake was scary or weird. They were just teammates, sitting together on the bench, a victory formation in a mom's playbook.

He can't run as fast, or throw a ball as far, as most of his teammates. But nobody is more animated. His pregame speeches are the stuff of Hornet lore. Ask Ramsay what Jake said in a recent one and he says, "I'm not exactly sure. It was loud, though."

When they played a game on ESPNU a few weeks ago, all of the players were asked to fill out a questionnaire. One of the questions was "Who's the funniest guy on the team?"

Without consulting each other, nearly all of them answered: Jake Martin.

At a recent practice, he's the last one out of the locker room. He charges onto the field yelling, "Come on guys! Play hard!"

He wanders off for a while, spending some time with the water girls, prompting a couple of his teammates to get on him.

"You going to strap up, Jake?" senior Jake Litecky says. "Come on buddy. Come put somebody on his back."

He ribs his teammates. They rib him back. And eventually Jake Martin does strap up, putting on a helmet which says "JLW" and "9-8-11" on the back. All of the Hornets' helmets do.

It's in memory of Jessica West, a sophomore who committed suicide. Her death shook the students, teachers, administrators and a football coach who lost his older brother to suicide. And one of the messages West wrote on her Myspace page last summer carries extra weight when you look at what is playing out on this football field.

"Don't laugh at me," she wrote. "Don't call me names; don't get pleasure from my pain; in God's eyes we're all the same; some day we'll all have perfect wings."

There are guys on the Yulee team who are blessed with arms and legs made for football. But for the ESPN game, Ramsay made Jake one of the four captains, which meant he went out to midfield for the coin toss.

The Hornets lost 49-7 to Buford, Ga., a national powerhouse. But then they went on a three-game winning streak, setting the stage for something better than a pregame ritual. The end-of-game play.

Jake was on the field for the final play against Jackson and the final two plays against Fernandina Beach. He left the field celebrating like he had won the Super Bowl.

Although they lost Friday night to First Coast, his coach has dreams of figuring out a way to get No. 30 a touchdown. Maybe for senior night.

He'll be pumped up that night. So don't be surprised if Jake ends up launching into an animated pregame speech. And don't be surprised if he's surrounded by a bunch of teammates who are feeding off his enthusiasm, not only accepting his differences, but embracing them.

Talk about a victory formation.

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