September 22, 2009

Boy with Down syndrome runs for TD

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Mike Ziesel is glad that his son's 63-yard touchdown run in a high school freshman football game is becoming a YouTube sensation. Not because it is putting his son, Matt, in the spotlight - but because it's putting kids with Down syndrome in the news.

"It's not about Matt, it's about educating the public," he said. "I feel this is a very educational experience. Not just for our family and Matt but for the entire nation.

"It's unbelievable how this has blossomed."

The video, which had more than a quarter of a million views in its first week, shows the final play of a freshman football game in Missouri between Benton and Maryville on Sept. 14.

With Maryville up, 46-0, Benton coach Danny McCamy sought out Maryville coach Jordan Moree with a question: Would you mind if our special needs player got a chance to compete?

Moree and the Maryville team were happy to oblige, allowing Ziesel the chance to take a handoff on a sweep right and head down the sidelines for a touchdown.

The touchdown was the culmination of months of work for Ziesel, a 15-year-old freshman who is mainstreamed at the school with a modified education plan. Ziesel, just 5-3 and 105 pounds, participates in all non-contact drills in practice.

"They're taking care of him," Mike Ziesel said. "Letting him be a part of the team."

Matt wouldn't have it other way. Sports have always played a big role in his life.

His father serves as athletic director at the school. His four older siblings all were star athletes so he's been around sports all his life.

When he told his dad he wanted to play football, his father agreed - but only if he did everything the others kid did - starting with weight training, followed by a two-a-day practices.

"I'm far from a, 'I want this for him, I want that for him' type of parent," he said. "I want him to be treated as normal as anyone."

That being said, he knows his son can't complete all of the physical activity, but he feels the fact that he's being given a chance is a lesson for all.

"As a coach, as an educator, I'm hoping this is a feel-good story that is opening the eyes of people," he said. "Special-needs kids of all nature are no different in that they just want some opportunity."

Ironically, the video was only put up on YouTube so that Matt's mom, Patty, could see the play.

"We really only wanted about four people to see it," Mike Ziesel said. "But they showed others and it just took off."

So much, in fact, that Ziesel estimates he's done more than a dozen media interviews about the play.

Response to the video has not all been positive as some have suggested it was not done in the true spirit of competition.

Ziesel, however, said he is not bothered by that. In fact, he said, he expected it - and calls it part of the learning process for all.

Always the teacher, Ziesel says the final part of the video - where Matt tosses the ball to the referee after he scores - is his favorite.

The school had practiced the play before in an intra-squad scrimmage earlier this summer. After he scored on that occasion, Matt did a victory celebration in the end zone. His father told him that would be a 15-yard penalty in the game.

"It was just part of the learning process, teaching him all the rules of the game," he said. "And when he finally did get a chance to score, he remembered that."

Call it a lesson learned.

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