By Rob Ketcham, The Cullman Times, Ala.
Sept. 30–HOLLY POND — They say there hasn’t been a win on a football field for Holly Pond in going on two and a half years.
I highly beg to differ.
The sequence begins with a seventh-grade physical education class playing tackle football on the far end of the Broncos’ practice field. The pigskin is handed off to a tall, lanky boy in a green shirt and athletic shorts who proceeds to take off for the left sideline, sprint past a massive wave of defenders and — while avoiding would-be tacklers diving at his feet — gallop all the way to the end zone for a touchdown.
Once across the goal line, the boy spikes the ball with both hands, performs a slick little shuffle, points excitedly at his classmates and then raises his arms up in triumph as kids approach to offer high-fives and endless attaboys.
At this point, I’m sure you’re wondering what makes this moment so memorable. Touchdowns are a dime a dozen and frequently celebrated like there’s no tomorrow.
But if you know anything about Parker Odeneal, the scorer of this particular touchdown, then you’re well aware why his six-point scamper is considered so special.
Here’s Odeneal in a nutshell: The 14-year-old loves technology, would watch nothing but movie trailers if given the chance and prefers to keep clean if at all possible.
Oh, and he also has autism.
While important in telling Odeneal’s story, that last fact definitely doesn’t define him. Sure, it’s made for slower social development and the occasional mood swing, but since when isn’t the latter the case for the average teen?
One such swing occurred not long before Odeneal’s touchdown trek. Fifteen minutes earlier, he’d yelled and thrown his bag down simply because he didn’t want to go play football.
Knowing how the sport sometimes sours Odeneal’s spirits, fellow seventh-grader Seth Creel said the class collectively put a plan in action to give Odeneal “the chance to learn how it feels to score a touchdown.”
The end result was pure happiness for all involved.
Seeing the score made student Parker Sellers “feel warm inside.” As much as he cherished the moment, Sellers knew it meant even more to Odeneal.
“I think he was just rejoicing in it,” he said. “I thank God for letting it happen.”
The touchdown reduced Lori Baggett, Odeneal’s special education aide, to tears. Part of the reason was how he recovered from his earlier episode to interact so seamlessly. More than anything, though, she was touched by his classmates’ reactions.
Baggett said it’s also not unusual for the kids to let Odeneal shoot layups when they stay in the gym for basketball.
“I think it’s precious the way they treat him,” she said. “I couldn’t name a one of them that are ever mean.”
Teenagers, by nature, can be extremely self-oriented. That’s no knock. It’s just the way life tends to work.
So just how did this group of Holly Pond seventh-graders set aside any chances to rack up their own touchdowns and personal fame to shine the spotlight on someone else?
For Sellers and Creel, the choice was easy. Both have been impacted by family members with disabilities.
Sellers said his cousin, who’s in a wheelchair and unable to communicate, is a Special Olympics competitor. Sellers enjoys watching him in action because it proves he’s just as capable of athletic feats as anyone else.
Creel’s come to learn opportunities often taken for granted by the general public aren’t as plentiful for folks with special needs.
He didn’t want Odeneal to endure that same feeling of being left out.
“He might never get that experience again,” Creel said. “We just felt happy that if we gave him the ball, we knew we could give him a life experience that he’d probably never forget.”
Odeneal certainly hadn’t forgotten by early Tuesday morning. He waltzed into P.E. class carrying a foam football and was eager to tell me all about his path to the end zone.
Someone with the moves Odeneal displayed during his animated celebration surely had to have practiced them beforehand, right?
Could’ve fooled me.
“Yeah, that just came on the fly,” he said.
Remember that part earlier where Odeneal wasn’t such a big fan of football? Baggett said he recently changed his tune and has told her he wants to play when he reaches the ninth grade.
Odeneal pulled at my heart strings when he tried to see if I could make his wish a reality.
“If you write me a story, does that mean I’ll be able to be on the football team?” he asked.
While you scurry to find the nearest tissue, get ready for the real kicker of this tale.
There was absolutely no adult involvement in making it happen.
Aside from P.E. teacher Robert Franklin’s encouragement early in the school year to involve the few special needs students in class, every act of kindness has been of their own doing.
“You know it’s a good day as an educator when kids get the concept,” said Franklin, who captured the special scene from one angle and Baggett from another. “You suddenly realize these are the moments that count. These are the moments that matter. These are the takeaways that truly make an impact.”
Odeneal’s inspirational play came at a time when Holly Pond needed it most. In the last couple of weeks, Franklin said the school has dealt with the loss of a student’s father and the leukemia diagnosis of standout athlete Cidney Hays.
“I’m convinced that God orchestrated this moment that Parker Odeneal provided to help us move forward as a school,” the instructor said.
The moment Odeneal provided could merely be boiled down to an autistic student scoring a touchdown with the help of his non-autistic classmates.
But that’s the easy way out.
The right way is to acknowledge a class of seventh-graders at Holly Pond Middle for taking 24 seconds to make football about so much more than football.
And that’s a win in my book.
(c)2015 The Cullman Times (Cullman, Ala.)
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