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Welcoming autistic boy into their 'family' helped Kearns players appreciate gifts of the game

Deseret News - 10/23/2017

KEARNS — The grind of a football season can obscure aspects of its beauty.

All it takes to reveal it, however, is the opportunity to see that monotony through the eyes of someone who’s never experienced it.

For Kearns running back Sese Filila, that gift came when an eighth-grader began hanging out on the sideline of their summer practices.

“I noticed he was always hanging around our practices,” said the senior. “I was wondering why he was there, and then one day (running backs) coach (Juan) Henderson called us over and said, ‘Hey, this is Gavin. He really loves football and he’ll be hanging out with us.’ After that we just welcomed him into our running back drills.”

Head coach Matt Rickards said he received an email from Gavin Rausch’s mom during the summer.

“She just asked if he could hang out and watch,” Rickards said, noting that he’s an eighth-grader who is home-schooled. “I told her he could come and hang out on the sideline if he was comfortable.” At first he was shy, some of his reluctance maybe due to the fact that he’s autistic. But eventually, his love for football overcame any trepidation.

“Now we have to drag him off the field,” Rickards laughed. “He was hanging around watching practice, asking the kids questions, asking coaches questions. And he started hanging around the running backs a lot. (Henderson) is a great guy, and he just kind of took him under his wing.”

Gavin began showing up with his own helmet and pads, sometimes tossing a ball to himself. He’d ask questions about what the players were doing — and why — and he’d talk to both players and coaches about the football games he watched on television.

“He loves the (Ohio State) Buckeyes,” Rickards said. “He loves football. I think it’s great to have him around. If we can provide an opportunity for him to be close to in, then we should be giving him every chance to do that.”

The Cougars, who are enjoying a 6-1 start to the season, did more than let him be close to the game during their Green and Gold Game in August. They let him suit up for the game, and allowed him to score a touchdown — as a running back.

“It was 26-power, our bread and butter play,” Filila said. “It was pretty great. I’ve seen videos like that online, but to actually experience it, it felt good just to make him smile, to make him feel good. Football really does mean a lot to him.”

The game means a lot to Filila and his teammates, too.

But seeing how much Gavin enjoyed his experience gave him a unique type of gratitude.

“It does make me realize, thinking about how much the younger generation looks up to us,” he said. “Our Little League comes out and watches our games and supports us. It makes me want to appreciate it more, and it makes me, when I get older, want to give back, maybe coach them.”

He said football has made him a different person than he would be without the lessons learned by being part of “the brotherhood.”

“It’s made me want to be more involved in the community,” he said. “Just gives me pride in this community and makes me want to help and give back. It made me realize how much you learn in football and how they can apply to your life and your relationships with family and friends.”

Rickards and the team let Gavin do more than be a spectator because he’s doing more than teaching players to win football games.

“I guess we could let it distract us,” Rickards said. “But that’s not what we’re about. We take football seriously and we want to be the best we can possibly be, win as much as possible, but winning a game is not the most important thing in the world. … The culture of our program is the most important thing to us. That’s who we are and how we use football to make us who we are. If he can be part of that, if the kids can get something from that, then that’s the most important thing.”

Henderson said Gavin’s presence at practices helps him keep competition in perspective.

“One thing I’ve learned is that I can’t take myself too seriously,” he said laughing. “We get out there and we really want to win. But they’re just kids. Even though they can play really well, they’re just kids. And we need to show them some love too. We’re all examples to somebody, whether we want to be or not.”

He said the players have learned humility because it’s forced them to think about someone else’s life experience.

“Sometimes the attention is focused on them so much, if they don’t come outside themselves, they could be in trouble,” Henderson said. “They’ve learned their example is important. … They realize, ‘Hey, my attitude means something.’”

Henderson said Gavin made him think about how he’d yearn to be around the coaches on the sideline at UNLV, the college in his hometown of Las Vegas.

“I started thinking how kind the coach was to me, slap me five, and made me one of the guys,” he said. “I started thinking about Gavin coming out, and you know, you’ve got a lot on your mind, drills and what you’re going to do to be effective. It just helps me realize I don’t need to take myself so seriously. I need to be an example to him. We’re all helping each other, raising each others kids, whether we know it or not.”

Filila said that because they view football as a family, Gavin just feels like a little brother “He’s always there, running around,” he said. “He’s just goofing around being Gavin, and it just makes you happy.”

CREDIT: Amy Donaldson, Deseret News


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