By Kristy Zurbrick, Madison Editor
Leading up to this season, Jacob Borders, 12, played four years of youth football with the London Area Boys Football League. The next step was school league football as a seventh-grader at London Middle School, but his mother was apprehensive.
In a conversation with her husband, Dale, and the middle school head coach, Sean Sabulsky, Lauren Samuel laid out her worries.
“I said, ‘He has autism.’ They said, ‘So?’ I said, ‘He only weighs 62 pounds.’ They said, ‘So?’ He can’t be at practice until 4:30 because he goes to a school for autism in Columbus. ‘So?’ ”
With this vote of confidence and Jacob’s desire to play football, a collective decision was made to go for it. Lauren said it turned out to be the right decision all the way around, especially when it came to her biggest worry—Jacob fitting in with the other players.
“Because he didn’t know any of the kids, I wasn’t sure they would take to him… but this has been probably the best place for him for acceptance,” she said.
Jacob was 4 years old when he was diagnosed with “pervasive developmental disorder not otherwise speci
fied,” an autism spectrum disorder. His social develop-ment lags behind his peers, he struggles with some learning concepts but excels in others, and he can be sensitive to touch, noise and changes in routine.
Many of these challenges melt away when he is on the football field. Lauren gives a lot of credit to Jacob’s teammates and coaches, who have been supportive from the start.
“When you’ve almost given up hope in the world in general, you see these kids being great with Jacob, and these coaches out there with 50 other kids, still giving him one-on-one attention,” Lauren said.
When Jacob arrives for practices, two or three of his teammates come to the car to help him put on his pads, carry his heavy equipment bag and sometimes, for fun, give him piggyback rides to the field. They help him work through new skills during drills and give him high-fives when he does well. When he had leg spasms at a recent practice, they showed him stretches and told him about their own aches and pains.
“He’s clicking. He feels like he was one of them. He feels like a typical kid,” Lauren said. “I’ve cried more times over this experience than over any meltdown, because he is succeeding… Football has been like huge therapy. He’s maturing more. It has made him want to grow up.”
The opportunity for growth has gone both ways, said Coach Sabulsky.
“I tell my players that as student-athletes and young adults, they need to start having more maturity and help others on the team. They all came together and did that for Jacob,” he said.
He also said that Jacob has served as a role model for them.
Like he does with everything he loves, Jacob puts 100 percent effort into football and doesn’t let autism be an obstacle. He plays corner and safety on defense and tight end and tailback on offense and loves every minute of it.
One of the highlights of this season, he said, was when he scored during London’s game against Columbus Academy. It was the first time he had touched the ball in a game in two years due to rules about his age.
“It was a good moment for me and a good moment for my team, too,” he said.
The look on his face when he ran the ball up the field and the way his teammates celebrated afterward is something his coach and his mother said they will never forget.
But the highlight that trumps that, Jacob said, is simply “being with all those kids out there.”
“The football players are nice to me. When I play football, I don’t have autism,” he said.
When asked what skill he has improved on most over the season, he didn’t skip a beat when he answered, “Being a real kid.”
London Middle School’s last game of the season is Oct. 21 at Madison-Plains. The seventh-graders play at 5 p.m., and the eighth-graders play at 6:30.