Stardom found Houston Berg this year, at the last place you would have expected.
Here’s what Houston did, once a week, for seven weeks: Took a handoff, found a hole, eluded grasping arms, rambled down the football field with cheers ringing in his ears.
He’d score his touchdown, then turn around and dance, transfusing the stadium in sweetness and light.
Houston, a 16-year-old member of the Saskatoon St. Joseph junior high football team, has Down syndrome.
But his head coach didn’t want him to be a water boy or an errand runner. He wanted Houston to play — to experience, in his own way, what everybody else did.
“We’re in the kid business,” said coach Al Cooney. “This is for kids. Anyone should be able to have the opportunity.”
So Cooney talked to opposing teams and they formulated a plan, with the enthusiastic approval of players across the league.
Houston lined up at tailback for two plays each game, always early in the third quarter. The first time, an opponent would tackle him. The second time, he’d find open lanes; would magically dodge would-be tacklers. Arms would reach out, grasp, find nothing but the breeze from Houston’s passing body. Defenders would fall down. The field would open up. Tears would fill his mother’s eyes as she watched from the bleachers.
He’d cross the goal-line, he’d move his body through a choreographed dance, he’d be a football hero. He didn’t notice, or care, that the clock was stopped during his two-play stint; that the chains weren’t moving.
Houston Berg was a football player, with the helmet and pads, and he’d just been tackled, then scored a touchdown, and even opponents were happy for him, and what more could a kid want? “He had quite a few touchdown dances,” noted St. Joseph middle linebacker Cassidy Skinner. “He’d practice them in gym class.”
“It was,” said Cooney, “the highest point of the games (when Houston carried the football). The peak of the action came when that was happening.
“(Opposing coaches) all talked to their players, coached them up in terms of letting Houston experience a little bit of success and failure. He’d get a touchdown, or he’d get tackled, but it was all planned. We didn’t want him to get hurt, obviously.”
Houston — whose older brothers Mitch and Carter have both played in the Western Hockey League — faithfully attended every football practice and took part in individual and skills drills. When the team scrimmaged, he’d run a few reps of the plays he’d use for the next game. The strategy usually called for him to follow his blockers up the middle, though he’d often break away and do his own thing.
Houston learned to listen quietly, without misbehaving, when the coach was talking. He learned patience. It wasn’t easy, standing on the sidelines an entire football game, just to get his two plays. When his enthusiasm waned, teammates would pick up him verbally, get him going again.
It all started with a humble request from parents Holly and Dale Berg to get Houston involved in the football program. Perhaps, the thinking went, he could fill water bottles. Or something.
“But Mr. Cooney just said, ‘Well, the only way he’s going to be part of it is if he plays,’ ” recalled Houston’s mother Holly. “I wondered if we’d bit off more than we could chew, to be honest.”
But her fears subsided when she saw how deeply the entire league bought in and she’d now like Houston to keep playing football.
Next year, the Grade 10 student plans to suit up for the junior team again. Holly doesn’t think it’s right to ask the senior squad if he can play, because those realities are different — just like she won’t ask about basketball, knowing the game’s flow would make it impossible for Houston to integrate like he did on the gridiron.
“I’m not going to ask for something that’s not doable,” she said. “I know our limitations and I don’t want it to be all about him, because that’s not what it’s for. This is everybody’s game. But it’s nice he can be part of it — still have his game, but give it to everybody.”
And she hopes Houston’s experience can show other parents, coaches and schools what can be done for kids with special needs. Some people, she says, don’t know how to relate to those with Down syndrome. But Houston likes music and roughhousing, and loves playing sports — both at his school and in Special Olympics, where he’s involved in track, basketball, swimming and soccer.
He is, says his mom, just a guy. Like the other kids in his school who are just guys.
“There’s many, many kids out there who just need someone to say, ‘Would you like to come out and play?’ ” Holly said. “Maybe it’s a little bit of work initially, but the reward is huge at the end of it.”
She’s watched Houston grow as a person since the first time teammates dressed him in pads and walked with him onto the field. He’s learned about being patient and the value of working hard at something you love. His status as a football player has aided his confidence at school.
Houston says he was scared when he ventured onto the turf for his first-ever game action.
Scared, and nervous. But he gamely took the ball from the quarterback and ran outside his comfort zone, and his life changed because of it.
Houston tells the reporter that one of many things he likes about football is wearing the pads; that they made him feel bigger.
“So you looked like a real tough football player when you were out there?” he’s asked. Houston pauses and smiles shyly.