8-year-old boy with Down syndrome takes football field
by Michelle Babcock
October 04, 2013 11:58 PM | 1943 views | 0 0 comments | 8 8 recommendations | email to a friend | print
An 8-year-old with Down syndrome usually helps his team as manager, but today he is going to suit up and take to the field with the other players.

Matt Grugan’s son, Sammy, joined the 6- and 7-year-old Creekview Grizzlies White team this year as a football manager, and the father of two said he was overjoyed when his son was asked to make a play during today’s game at Creekview High School.

“He’s got a helmet and a jersey with his name on the back, so he’s just like all the other boys; that’s all he needed,” Grugan said. “It’s truly about inclusion and acceptance.”

Grugan said he expected his son to help the team as the manager by running water out to players or bringing the football tee in after kickoffs, but was overwhelmed when community support started pouring in over Sammy’s opportunity to play in a game.

“When coach Dave asked him to be on the team, just to see him in a helmet, that right there is a dad’s dream. I was thrilled with him just being a part (of the team),” Grugan said. “When I heard they were going to get him in there and he was going to run for a touchdown, it’s overwhelming, I can’t even put it into words. … I (was) on the border of crying because of what everybody’s willing to do to have my son have this experience.”

David Guy, head coach of the team, said that at the conclusion of the second quarter of the game right before halftime, Sammy would run his play.

“We’re going to bring him on the field and have him run one play that will be controlled,” Guy said. “The team, which is a bunch of second-graders, almost all of them go to Avery Elementary, and they saw Sammy at school. … it’s really nice seeing 16 or 17 6- and 7-year-olds really embrace him. When you put a football helmet on, everybody’s the same. They treat him the same.”

Sammy’s football game coincides with Down Syndrome Awareness Month, which is October, and Grugan said at Avery Elementary School where Sammy attends, “the kids are phenomenal, the inclusion is great — the high fives, the hugs, they are great.”

“If you have the opportunity to meet someone with Down syndrome, it’s an eye-opening experience,” Grugan said. “Before I had a child with Down syndrome, I was never exposed to it. … Most kids and adults with Down syndrome are very emotional. They’re very happy and want to hug. They’re very happy, outgoing people. Sammy is like that to a tee, that’s his best trait.”

As a father, Grugan said he’s thrilled that his son can be included on the football team, and have the opportunity to participate on the team with his friends.

“They’re designing a special play for him, he’s going to run from the 35-yard line, he’s going to run a touchdown. They’ve been working on this all week; it’s a big event,” Grugan said. “They’re all friends with Sammy, they’ve been friends with him … they include him with day-to-day things. He’s Sammy, he’s just another boy to them.”

Guy said that the friendship between Sammy and the team was heartwarming.

“I can’t think of a better story of inclusion to tell,” Guy said.

Jennie Grugan, Sammy’s mother, said that watching her son participate with the football team has been an amazing thing to see.

“It’s important to me, because like any other parent, ultimately what we want for our children is acceptance and inclusion,” she said.

“And watching this, I’m getting to see that. It’s absolute acceptance and inclusion in everything.”

Grugan said she was a little concerned about safety at first, but since everyone knows what’s going on she’s confident that her son will be safe.

“His teammates know, they want to protect him. One of his little buddies told his mom the other night, ‘mom, can you make me some extra broccoli, because I need to be really strong to protect Sammy on Saturday.’ So I don’t have any worries now,” she said.

Grugan said he and his wife are advocates for inclusion, and said they encourage people to talk with individuals who have Down syndrome.

“Give him a chance, ask to have a conversation. Just engage him, he’s very entertaining and he’ll answer any question you have. He’s a normal boy that has all the same wants and needs as any other kid,” Grugan said. “He wants to do things on his own, he wants to be part of a group. … He’s a normal, everyday boy, he just has an extra chromosome. It doesn’t make him different, it makes him special. To see the way that he treats everybody, I’m sure my wife and I and even the friends that know Sam, would say everybody needs this extra chromosome. It’s awesome, the world would be a better place if everyone was more like Sam.”

Sammy’s mother agreed, and said that Down Syndrome Awareness Month was all about raising awareness of acceptance and inclusion.

“The most important thing for us is just to include him, and accept him for exactly who he is,” she said. “He’s first and foremost a little boy, just like his teammates. So just take the time to speak to him. Not just children, not just Sammy, but there are a lot of adults with special needs that you see working, maybe at the grocery store, and just take the time to interact with them, that’s all they want.”

The Grugans said that their 10-year-old daughter, Madeline, played basketball and did cheerleading with Guy’s daughter, and their families are good friends. It was Coach Guy’s idea to include Sammy in the football team, and the Grugans said it meant a lot to them.

Grugan said when Guy thought of the idea to invite Sammy onto the team, everybody was on-board.

“The other coach has been fantastic about this,” he said. “Everybody who’s been involved in this has just been phenomenal.”

Grugan said that his son is already well-known and loved around town, and said that many people stop him in the community to say hello. Grugan said he sometimes refers to Sammy as “the Mayor of Canton” because so many people know him.

“From my standpoint, and my wife’s standpoint, it’s fantastic. A lot of people know Sam,” Grugan said. “We go anywhere and kids — and not just in his age group, even into the middle school age and even some high-schoolers — will stop, and say ‘Look, it’s Sam!’ They’ll come up and grab his hand and shake his hand and high five him and say ‘Hey, Sammy, how you been?’”

Grugan said his son played on the Braves’ Miracle League softball team for several seasons, and said that Sammy has always been a big sports fan, whether watching a game or playing softball and soccer.

“He’s always been involved in sports,” Grugan said. “He’s a big-time Braves fan and we go to several games a year, at his request… Chipper Jones is his favorite player, he still roots for him even though Chipper doesn’t actually play on the team anymore.”

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