I have a great deal of respect for the coaches who understand that team sports like football, should be above everything else, fun. Sports should be about being with friends, doing your best, and after it’s all said and done, leave you with pride and a sense of belonging. Like a family on the Spectrum, sports takes a great deal of effort, gives a sense of family, and leaves you with memories that will last a lifetime. Additionally if done correctly and well, sports helps to develop a person’s personality, perseverance and commitment as they grow older.
Sports, especially football, has been used as a metaphor for life. This is no different for families affected by autism. -Ed
“I like it a lot,” Justin said.
But Justin is different than the rest of his teammates: he has Autism Spectrum Disorder.
“Justin is the sweetest boy,” said his mother Crystal Haacke.
Justin and his family have battled the challenges that come with Autism. Communication and social interaction can be very difficult for him, but the game of football has helped with that.
“Afterwards, when the practice is over, when the game is over you see him get to play with all these kids,” Crystal Haacke said. “And they love Justin so much, and they think Justin is so much fun. And he doesn’t necessarily interact with a lot of people that way.”
Football has also allowed Justin to spend more time with his father, who also happens to be his coach.
“He does his best and goes out there and plays as hard as he can,” said his father Chris Haacke. “Even though he has his limitations he still gives 110 percent on the football field. As a football coach, and a dad, that’s all you can ask for from your son.”
“It’s been a really fun thing for him to be with his dad,” Crystal Haacke said.
As much as playing the game has meant to him and his family, the effects of the disorder have made it too difficult for Justin to continue to play. Due to safety concerns, his parents made the difficult decision that this season would be his last.
Knowing Justin would be playing his last game, his father had an idea; he wanted it to be a moment Justin would never forget.
Mountain View faced Juan Diego on October 20, and Chris Haacke approached the Juan Diego coach and told him about his idea.
“We would like to set up a play for one of our players who has Autism,” Haacke told the coach. “We would like to have him run for a touchdown and let him go out with a bang.”
The Juan Diego coach agreed and ran the play.
“I ran to the end zone and the other coaches said, ‘Hey, Justin, here’s the play. You’re going to get the ball, and you’re going to run to the end zone and run right for your dad,’ ” Chris Haacke remembers.
With a little help from his mother’s cheers, Justin took the handoff, ran to the right and followed his blockers into the end zone.
“Nobody even tackled me because I was too fast,” Justin said.
“Oh wow,” his mother said about watching Justin’s touchdown run. “That moment was great.”
It was a moment his parents and many of those in attendance will never forget.
“The pure joy on his face when he got in there and both teams surrounded him and patted him on the head and were cheering for him. It was overwhelming,” Chris Haacke remembers
“I don’t know if anything else that we could have done for him would have given him that moment,” Crystal Haacke said. “Where he was just the best in that moment that he could have been, that he ever will be.”
The family hopes that moment can inspire others and spread awareness about Autism Spectrum Disorder.
“Autism is hard,” Crystal said. “but there is so many joyful things that come. That experience showed me how many people out there really, really, really just are good and they want a little boy to feel good in that moment.”
“I’m so happy when we win,” Justin said. “That’s my favorite.”
On that day in October, everyone involved was a winner — a moment of sportsmanship at it’s finest. It’s a moment his parents hope he can turn to as he tackles the challenges of autism in the future.
“The funnest part of football?” Justin says, “Win and never give up.”