Best American Sports Writing 2010, Notable Sports Writing
This article received notable mention in The Best American Sports Writing, which brings together the finest writing on sports to appear in the past year. Edited by the award-winning Peter Gammons.
Freshman football player with down syndrome
TD! Run by player with Down Syndrome Touches Fans
ST. JOSEPH, Mo. (AP) — His team trailing 46-0, Matt Ziesel scored a touchdown.
A single play, one of thousands across high school fields this fall and meaningless to the final score, brought tears of joy to fans in a Missouri stadium and went viral on the Internet.
No one who entered Maryville’s stadium that night expected a moment like this.
Not Ziesel, the freshman football player with Down Syndrome who wanted nothing more than to feel the camaraderie of winning and losing with his team. Not his parents, who never expected him to get into a game, nor the teammates who treated him no different from the rest. Certainly not the opposing coach and players who graciously went along with a coach’s idea to give Matt a moment of glory.
Together, unsuspectingly, they collaborated in a single powerful moment, proving civility isn’t an outdated notion and still has a place amid the chest-thumping multimillion-dollar athletes and the win-at-all-costs mentality permeating every level of sports.
“It shows that there’s still compassion out there, that there’s good people out there,” said Don McCamy, the Benton High School freshman coach who gave Matt his chance.
“It’s something that shows life is still worth living and things are still good.”
Matt has always been a competitor. He barely survived a premature birth and nearly died from pneumonia as a toddler. He had a coach for a father and an older sister — among his four siblings — who wouldn’t let him win just because he’s disabled, fueling an innate competitive spirit.
Naturally, sports held sway at an early age. It had Matt mocking his father’s animated coaching style on the basketball court, tracking Royals baseball and Missouri football, and yelling “Come on Chiefs!” at the TV when his favorite team was down. He didn’t always understand what was going on, but he wanted a piece of it.
Special Olympics were fine. Matt enjoyed the competition, the friendships. It just wasn’t enough. He wanted more. He wanted to be part of a football team.
Not a good idea, his doctor said. It was too risky for someone at his stage of physical development.
Matt wasn’t listening. Determined to wear the Benton High red and white, he was willing to sacrifice like all the other players to get it. Offseason workouts, weightlifting sessions, two-a-days? He didn’t miss one.
How does a parent say no to determination like that?
“You have to realize that while kids with special needs might be a little different than you and I, they all have the same goals, they want to be successful in life, they want to contribute to their teammates and classmates, be a part of something as much as anybody else,” said Matt’s father, Mike Ziesel, also the athletic director at Benson High.
“It’s just a little bit more of a challenge for them, but you still can’t deny them the opportunity to reach those goals.”
It can be an adventure sometimes.
Ten minutes into a recent practice, Matt Ziesel walks up the steps to the Benton High fields.
In front of an empty stadium, Matt starts kicking field goals, cheering each make, muttering after misses. In a self-contained world of bliss, he’s oblivious to his teammates running drills 100 yards away.
McCamy looks up between drills, cracking a smile as he watches Matt raise his arms in celebration after creeping one over the uprights. He knows the Ziesels as well as anyone, playing ball for Mike Ziesel and knowing Matt since he was a rambunctious toddler.
Allowing him to play freshman football was never a question.
“He’s willing to take on everything that he has to do to be a part of the football team,” McCamy said. “The coaching staff is happy to have him. It’s fun.”
Of course, there are rules. Matty rules.
Because Matt can’t take a hit — at least not yet — he participates only in a portion of the drills. If it’s tackling, the other kids make sure he always delivers a great hit. Running, he always makes a spectacular move, usually a spin.
During full team drills, the Cardinals run the Matty play: a handoff and a touchdown. Every time. And everyone is onboard with it.
During games, Matt spends every moment in McCamy’s back pocket, filling his ear: “I’m ready to go, coach … Coach, I’m ready.”
A former defensive tackle at Missouri, McCamy wanted nothing more than to give Matt the chance. He just needed the right opportunity.
He got it on Sept. 14 against Maryville.
In the closing seconds of a lopsided loss, McCamy called a time-out. Maryville assistant coach David McEnaney had gathered his players near the sideline and told them to look for a trick play.
To his surprise, McCamy walked across the field. He reached the startled players and coach, told them the situation and asked if they could let Matt score a touchdown but still make it look like they were trying to tackle him.
They enthusiastically agreed.
With his father half paying attention in the stands — another parent had to point it out — Matt entered the game, taking his spot in the backfield for the Matty play. Taking a handoff to the right, the 5-foot-3, 105-pound freshman ran around the end, streaked down the sideline as the Maryville players peeled off one by one with McCamy running alongside yelling, “Matt, they’re going to get you! Hurry, hurry, hurry!”
With a little gallop at the end, Matt crossed into the end zone and raised the ball to his face. A touchdown, the kind movies are made of.
“It was cool,” Matt said.
Players from both teams stood on the field and applauded. The players on the sideline joined in, and so did the fans.
Then virtue went viral.
Because Matt’s mother, Patty, wasn’t able to attend the game, McCamy posted the play on YouTube so she could see her son’s moment. More than a half million people viewed the 51-second clip of Matt’s 63-yard run, sparking thousands of comments and e-mails to the Ziesels, McCamy and McEnaney.
People with special-needs children wrote to say the play brought them to tears and provided hope their kids could one day experience a similar joy. Random people — an office worker in England, a soldier in Iraq, a Maryville alumnus in Florida — called Matt’s touchdown an inspiration.
“You can have a fight within an office or an organization, yet you can have a bunch of kids show the adults what life is really all about,” McCamy said. “Maybe it’s not all about a shutout or about the victory, it’s about how we play the games, how we live our life that’s important.”
His team trailing 46-0, Matt Ziesel scored a touchdown.