Ben's soccer team doing their cheer, "Go Cheetahs!"
As Ben’s first soccer season draws to an end, I wanted to take a moment to write this to you. I know I said thank you today on the field, but I also know that those two simple words cannot convey just exactly how grateful my family is to you.
There are not many people would volunteer their time to coach 4 and 5 year old soccer on a Saturday. I know this because of the multiple emails I received pleading for coaches for the league. If I’d had the slightest clue how to play soccer beyond “don’t touch the ball” I would have helped. But you stepped up in a big way.
I know for many parents, soccer is one of many sports and activities that their child participates in. For us, deciding to put Ben in a regular soccer league was a really big deal and we didn’t make the decision lightly. For you see, we’ve tried other sports and watched them fail miserably. Like the karate class where Ben spent almost the entire time in the penalty box because he would not “focus”. Or gyms that were too noisy, too confusing, too…much. So after careful research we chose a soccer league that emphasized sportsmanship over competition, a league where everyone gets a trophy and we held our breaths and hoped for the best.
So when I approached you on that first day and told you that my little boy is autistic and may not look you in the eyes or always focus on the game, I fully expected to see an expression of panic on your face. I would have completely understood if you glanced for the nearest exit. I would have even understood if you had said, “Autism? I’m just a volunteer and I don’t think I am equipped to handle your son.” But you did none of those things. Instead, you gave me a reassuring smile and you told me that he would be fine, and I knew immediately that you weren’t patronizing me. I felt the confidence in your voice and a glimmer of hope grew inside me. For the first time, I let myself believe that this could actually work. And then, you gave my son a jersey, and he suddenly he was a soccer player. Number nine. I know no one else felt it, but a momentous shift happened in that moment. My little guy who prefers his world of solitude was now part of a team.
Watching you with the children each week was just magic. Your positive energy was infectious, and even the most reluctant child was drawn to your energy. When my son would wander away from the field or in front of another player during drills, you never showed an ounce of impatience or exasperation. You guided him to where he needed to be. You talked him through what was going on in the game. You even adapted some soccer drills along the way to meet his needs. When Ben had the idea to knock down the cones with the ball, everybody took turns doing it. When Ben lost interest kicking the ball to a team member, you became his teammate until he was ready to join the group again. And, amazingly, you did all this with a smile.
Because of you, on soccer Saturdays he would wake excited to get on the field, and when he would see your bright red shirt, he would run to you, yelling, “I’m here, Coach!” He got to feel the thrill of a game well played. He got to bask in the glow of applause from the crowd. He learned how to huddle up with his teammates and do a team cheer, “Go Cheetahs!” He got to slap the hands of the other team at the end and tell them, “Good Game!”
During the games, it would be hard for Ben to keep his focus on running after the ball, but you never lost sight of him. You always made sure he had equal turns to play. I watched as you made sure he had his turn to kick the ball in. I saw how you took the time to listen to him as he told you he was an airplane and joined his world by looking up to the sky too.
I was touched when, on the tournament day, you made sure to say something personal to each child. We all laughed together when you told the team that they had grown so much this year, to which Ben piped up, “Even me!” Your example of acceptance to Ben’s unique soccer style paved the way for his teammates to accept him too. I know that Ben has grown so much because of you, but the example that you set for those other children will be lessons that they take with them in the future about accepting differences in others and finding the strengths in everyone.
A simple thank you isn’t enough to convey our gratitude for the gift you have given him. Ben has regained his faith in the world of sports, and I know this will pave the way for him to try more in the future. I hope our paths will cross again, on the field or elsewhere, but I know one thing for sure. God puts people in our lives in the moments when we need them, and he brought you to us. Thank you from the bottom of our hearts!
Love,Jessica, Nick, and Ben