Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Coaches give HS football player with autism a shot; he rewards them with a touchdown

From the Chicago Daily Herald:

During a junior varsity football game between Elgin and Lake Park high schools, Elgin would sometimes put in a player who lined up far off the line of scrimmage.

Lake Park coach Nana Agyeman noticed this, and during halftime, he talked to Elgin's head coach, Dave Bierman, about it. He learned the player, Winfred Cooper (pictured), has severe autism.

"Well," Agyeman told Bierman, "if you want to throw him the ball, just let us know."

Bierman was skeptical, questioning whether Cooper would catch the ball. But he and the coaches decided to give him a shot. After all, Cooper is a beloved member of the team, it's his senior year and he rarely gets to play.

So the coaches from both teams concocted a play called "Driver Driver," named after Green Bay Packers wide receiver Donald Driver. In the second half of the Sept. 12 contest, with Lake Park leading by a score of 6-0, Cooper was put in the game.

The Driver Driver play was called. The ball was snapped. Cooper ran to an open spot, and a wobbly pass was thrown his way.

The coaches cringed as their eyes followed the ball into the air. Cooper extended his arms ... and caught it.

Elgin's sideline erupted with cheers, and his teammates jumped up and down and screamed as Cooper raced full-sprint down the field. The fans, and even the Lake Park coaches, were cheering, too.

Cooper wove past a few Lake Park defenders, avoided a well-choreographed tackle attempt by Lake Park's Mike Schenone, and went 67 yards into the end zone to tie the game 6-6.

All of Cooper's teammates ran into the end zone after him, jumping up and down and slapping his helmet. The coaches choked back tears as they watched Cooper celebrate in the end zone with his teammates, doing his trademark dance, something called "The Winfred Shuffle." Some players danced along with him.

"It was the best thing I'd ever seen," said his father, Winfried Cooper Sr. of Elgin, who got teary-eyed watching his son's first-ever touchdown from the stands of Elgin's Memorial Stadium and the "Rudy"-like scene that followed.

"That was his moment, right there. Everyone hugged him as he came off the field, and he just wouldn't let go of that ball."

"Just his face," added Bierman. "You want to see a picture of happiness and joy? There it was."

Cooper - or "Coop" as his teammates call him - was given the game ball. His dad said he's slept with it in his arms every night. He's also re-watched the highlight tape from that game dozens of times.

While at first his coaches were hesitant to publicize the touchdown, not wanting to lessen Cooper's sense of accomplishment, his father said his son was excited to share his story.

"I ran really fast. When I scored a touchdown, I was excited that I scored a touchdown," said the 18-year-old Cooper. "Some people are talking about my touchdown at school. They respect me and like me."

Cooper was the big man on campus in the week that followed, as his classmates congratulated him on his big play. Cooper tells everyone he's going to the University of Michigan on a football scholarship now (he's not, but he is applying to the school), and he told his dad he's ready for an athletic shoe endorsement deal.

Winfred Cooper is the middle child of three boys. He didn't speak or make eye contact as a child, and at age 2 he was diagnosed with severe autism. He entered a special school, but as he got older, his father pushed for him to be in the mainstream classes.

At Elgin High School, he's worked hard to achieve his 3.6 GPA, which landed him in the National Honor Society. He gets extra time to take tests, but that's the only special concession he gets, his father said.

Cooper is a popular student and volunteers in the lunchroom, runs on the track team, raises money for children with autism (he's doing a T-shirt sale later this fall), and leads his football team in prayer during their weekly team dinners.

"He is a really great kid," his father said. "There's nothing in the world he wouldn't do to help people."

Given all the bad sportsmanship that's made headlines recently, the coaches saw this as a teaching opportunity for the players. It taught them that winning doesn't matter if you can provide someone with a moment like that.

"There was a greater victory that morning," Lake Park head coach Andy Livingston said.

Lake Park did end up winning the game 13-6, and afterward, Livingston couldn't hold back tears as he talked to his players. He shared the words Bierman said to him after the game: "Thank you. You made that young man's career."

"I've been doing this a long time, and I don't think I've ever seen anything cooler than this," Livingston said. "Vince Lombardi would crack a smile, and probably a tear, at this."