Lafayette’s football team hosted Woodford County in a scrimmage on Aug. 10. The Generals won 41-7, but the team’s biggest winners that night were Ronald Dyer and Will Watkins.
Dyer, a junior defensive back, and Watkins, a sophomore defensive lineman, played multiple snaps for the Generals inside the final eight minutes of the fourth quarter. It was the first time either player has gotten on the field after joining the team in the offseason.
Watkins had wanted to play football for a while. He had to prove to his parents that it was something he would take seriously before they allowed him to go out for the team. They finally relented this spring.
Dyer, on the other hand, played in peewee leagues growing up and participated in middle school. He stepped away from athletics for a couple of years before joining Lafayette’s track and field team last season. Football assistant coach Jon Lawson observed Dyer’s performance and encouraged him to come back to football.
Their paths to playing time were different, but similar in one regard: both players require special educational needs. Dyer battles ADHD and has been diagnosed with multiple learning disabilities; Watkins has a mild form of autism and suffers from severe migraines.
Of course, if you were watching from the stands that night, you would never have known they were different from any other kid on the sideline.
Watkins had never played football, but he had played basketball before. He was a center when he played in the Glendover League as a child.
“He was the big kid on the team, and he was way too nice to play center,” said Jennifer Watkins, Will’s mom. “He’d bump into somebody and be like, ‘Oh, sorry about that,’ and we’d be like, ‘No, buddy, you’ve got to use your size.’”
Will was asked by his parents to do several months of conditioning work at home before they would entertain the notion of him participating in high school football. He committed.
“So we finally said, ‘OK, he’s clearly serious about wanting to do this,’” Jennifer said.
Matt Watkins, Will’s dad, was a teacher at Bryan Station High School last school year and spoke with that school’s coaches about Will’s interest in playing this season. They connected Jennifer and Matt with Lafayette’s coaching staff. Generals head coach Eric Shaw spoke with the three of them directly about the pros and cons of bringing Will into the fold.
Head injuries are a major concern for any football parent, but especially so for the Watkins family because of Will’s history with migraines. His neurologist at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center and his local pediatrician both felt comfortable with Lafayette’s vigilance in protecting its players.
So far, so good.
“He comes every day. He practices hard, he does the drills,” Lafayette assistant coach Matt Brown said. “He really takes in what’s going on and tries to perfect what we do in practice.”
‘Being a friend’
Dyer’s fascination with football goes back to his childhood, when the son of a family friend who played for Anderson County High School became a role model.
Renee Dyer, Ronald’s mom, said she and her husband have always parented by the mantra “If he wants to try it, then we’re gonna let him try it.’ That led not only to youth football and track, but lots of time spent on baseball fields as a left fielder.
Youth football is one thing; varsity athletes are a whole lot bigger.
“Of course, as a mom, the first thing you think is, ‘That’s my kid out there on the field!’” Renee said. “And then your heart skips a beat and you’re like, ‘Dear Lord, don’t let him get hurt.’”
The Dyers adopted Ronald when he was 7 years old. He was an “angry, aggressive child” but has become a “polite, well-mannered young man” and rarely exhibits the outrage he did when he was younger, Renee said.
His behavior is so good, in fact, that he’s become something of a role model himself. While he was in the hospital nursing a broken hand over the summer, a nurse was so impressed with his demeanor that she asked him to come work at a special-needs camp.
Ronald doesn’t perceive himself as a role model, though.
“He just sees it as he knows what it was like to be a kid who had needs and was looking to be accepted and looking to have friends, and looking for people to help him and just treat him like a regular kid,” Renee said. “He is very empathetic and he has a big heart for kids that need a little more help, and he just does it.
“He doesn’t look at it as being a role model; he looks at it as being a friend.”
Jennifer has been amazed at the growth of her son Will’s social circle since he joined the football team.
“It seems like when he’s leaving practice or walking into school for something, there’s somebody that knows him and speaks to him and he speaks to,” Jennifer said. “I think, for us as his parents, and I think for any parent, that’s what you want for your kid.”
Ronald and Will aren’t unique from most of their teammates in at least one respect: they’re among the 92 percent of high school football players who won’t play in college.
“The reality is, most kids aren’t going to play football beyond high school,” Jennifer said. “It’s all about being active and doing something that he enjoys and having a group of people that supports him and that he can enjoy.”
Renee said other kids quickly realize that Ronald has special needs, and that it takes some time for him to catch on, but acceptance has never been much of an issue.
“He enjoys being on the team and he enjoys being accepted by those kids, and not treated like a special-needs kid,” Renee said.
Ronald was interviewed a few days after the game. He glowed when asked about his first time hitting the field.
“It was awesome,” he said. “I was just excited ’cause I got a tackle and I got to be out there.”
Renee chimed in. “This smile he’s got is the smile he had from the moment he got out of bed until he walked off the field,” she said. “I’ve got some pictures of him walking off the field and he’s just beaming.”
Will was every bit as elated right after the win, and was frank about playing multiple possessions.
“The first time I went out, it was really fun. The second time, it was a little more challenging,” Will said with a laugh.
Renee said when Ronald sat down with Shaw before he joined the team, one of the things he told him was, “‘Your disability isn’t who you are; it’s what you have.’”
She called it a “profound statement.” A slight retooling of that statement might be as equally profound: Your ability isn’t who you are; it’s what you have.
Each year, there are athletes at every level renowned for their on-field talent while exhibiting terrible off-field behavior. At Lafayette, there are at least two athletes whose on-field talent isn’t other-worldly, but whose off-field character and work ethic are worthy of Hall of Fame consideration. It puts things in perspective.
Renee continued sharing what Shaw told her son.
“‘What makes you you is the fact that you stand up for the little guy. The fact that you help out at school with kids who are special needs, that you volunteer your time at camps.’
“‘That’s you. That’s your personality, that’s who you’re becoming. That’s what makes you you, not your disability.’”