Zach Weaver is not so unlike the rest of the kids on the Cedarcrest School junior-high football team in Marysville. No. 96 practices with the...
Zach Weaver is not so unlike the rest of the kids on the Cedarcrest School junior-high football team in Marysville.
No. 96 practices with the rest of the kids and roots them on from the sidelines, and everyone knows him.
But Zach, 14, has fragile X syndrome, a genetic disability caused by the mutation of a gene on the X chromosome that affects about one in 5,000 people. Behaviorally, it has some of the characteristics of autism.
He won’t look strangers in the eye, he has trouble communicating, and he is easily excited or deflated to the point of sobbing.
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But this story isn’t just about Zach — it’s about all of the other kids dressed in red who play for the Timberwolves.
Julie and Randy Weaver, Zach’s parents, wanted to get their eldest son involved in a new activity, and though it seemed like a remote possibility, why not try to get him into the biggest sport at Cedarcrest School?
Julie, who is an educational assistant for the Marysville School District, thought the football coaches wouldn’t go for it — it’s too much of a risk, she thought they’d say.
But Randy insisted that his son could do it.
“Let’s put him in a uniform,” he said.
Randy went to the practices at first so he could help Zach suit up and make sure his son was fitting in, and the Weavers hoped to hire someone to take over that responsibility. That’s when something unexpected happened.
Zach’s peers started taking care of him.
They made sure his pants were up and his pads were in the right places. At a game against Monroe last week, when Zach appeared on the field with his jersey on backward, his teammates helped him pull it off, turn it around and put it back on the right way.
Zach became “Z-dog,” “Z-money” and “Number 96.”
“The coach was saying they treat him better than they treat each other,” Julie Weaver said.
During a game against Monroe a week ago, the other players gave Zach encouraging slaps on the back on the sidelines while Zach rooted his team on.
Zach doesn’t play in the contact part of the sport. For the most part, he stands on the sidelines and roots for his teammates. He gives them thumbs-up, high-fives and reaches into the air with his fingers in a peace sign.
In a display of teenage machismo, Zach will butt helmets with one of his teammates and growl.
And he cheers them on, too: “Go, red!”
Zach participates in practices and sometimes gets to join the action during a “fifth quarter” — after the regular game has ended, the teams keep playing so all players get a chance for some time on the field.
A coach stays near Zach to make sure he isn’t tackled. It’s a liability issue, said Julie.
But every once in a while, Zach gets a moment to shine.
For the last home game of the season Thursday, Zach is to run for a touchdown — with a ball signed by all of the kids on the team.
The special run will be the third time this season Zach’s coaches have arranged to let him run for a score.
During these plays, the teams line up, the Timberwolves start the play and the football goes to Zach. Both teams stand aside and cheer as Zach runs the ball across the goal line.
Last week when Zach ran for a touchdown that way against Monroe, his teammates started chanting, “Zach, Zach, Zach,” as they crowded around him.
Zach’s relationship with his teammates is something nobody saw coming, and it’s powerful enough to bring tears to the eyes of the coaches.
“I can’t tell you how it started — the kids, they just took to him,” said Vince Catronio, an assistant coach and a counselor at the junior high. “It just came to be.”
Most of the players say they met Zach as a friend of a friend. They had seen him around but really didn’t know anything about him.
They don’t seem to treat Zach like he’s different or needs extra attention.
Some on the team met Zach through Dane Widness, a friend of Zach’s since the fourth grade and one of the “popular kids,” according to his mother, Stephanie Widness.
“Ever since their relationship started, they’ve just had a normal friendship, with everything that boys do,” she said.
The decision to try to put Zach on the football team was similar to many other nerve-wracking decisions Julie and Randy Weaver made for their son.
Like the first time they put Zach on a school bus with many other kids who didn’t know him or know about fragile X. Or when Julie had to struggle to get Zach a job in the school store so he could start gaining experience that could help him get a job when he graduates.
For the Weavers, though, football season has been a far more important exercise in creating a spot for Zach in his community and educating a group of other kids who now know that while Zach is different, he’s a good person.
“It all comes back to educating people about disabilities and differences,” Julie Weaver said. “He has the same heart, and he feels the same things” as the rest of the team.
By watching his peers interact with each other, Zach learns how to act appropriately, said Julie.
And the other kids on the team learn about people with disabilities, she said, and maybe someday, when they’re community leaders and business owners, they’ll be more likely to hire someone like Zach.
The coaches agree.
“He inspires the boys as much as the other way around, he really does,” Catronio said.
Looking out at the eighth-graders playing last week, Julie Weaver said she hopes these kids remember their relationship with Zach.
“He’s going to live in Marysville [his whole life],” she said. “He needs to know as many people as he can to be successful. … It takes a village.”
Marysville has the state’s largest high school, and the Weavers are looking forward to what it will mean for Zach next school year.
They’re not sure if he’ll be able to play football, though there’s no doubt he wants to.
Randy Weaver said Zach’s junior-high coaches have already begun talking with the high school about what Zach can do in the bigger league of high-school football.
Brian Alexander: 425-745-7845 or firstname.lastname@example.org