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Published: October 10, 2006 10:25 pm    print this story   email this story   comment on this story  

Golden Eagles football player redefines autism

By Jean Cole

Dianne Russell noticed something was wrong with her son Ben when he was 3 years old.

“He was not speaking like he should have,” she says.

Several doctors examined him, but none could explain his condition.

Finally, one of them determined Ben is autistic.

“When he was first diagnosed, autism was not as well known as it is today – even among doctors,” his mother says.

Today, 17-year-old Ben is a junior at Athens High School and a defensive lineman for the Golden Eagles football team. He is also an accomplished artist.

If you met Ben, you probably wouldn’t think he is autistic.

“Autism is not always debilitating,” Russell says.

Ben is not like Raymond in the 1988 movie “Rain Man,” which featured an autistic savant who has computer-like ability to calculate but who was distant and oblivious to the needs of others. He is also not a child lost in a world of repetitive movements and facial ticks.

You couldn’t pick him out as the player with autism. The brown-eyed boy has an enviable head of sandy-blond hair, clear skin, a healthy tan and braces on his teeth. He is a handsome young man.

He does not seem distant or unemotional, to the contrary.

“I love everybody,” he says, reaching out and hugging a fellow teammate. “I love Bin Laden. I even love the devil. The Bible tells you to.”

His desire to reach out to others – even strangers – sometimes puts them off.

“They think something’s wrong with me,” he says.

Still, he believes his role in life is to teach others to be positive.

“I am pretty positive,” he says. “I’m good at teaching people how to be good.”

He is unsure how autism affects him. He can only list what others have said about him in the past – that he sometimes stares wide-eyed at them like Shaggy in the cartoon and movie “Scooby-Doo.”

“I’ve worked on that,” Ben says. “I’m not doing it now, am I?”

He also had a speech impediment, he says.

“But I don’t anymore. I’ve worked on that.”

What stands out about Ben is that he is brimming with love and positive attitude. He makes one wonder if they really understand what autism is.

Autism is classified as a neurodevelopmental disorder characterized by abnormal social interaction, communication ability, patterns of interests and patterns of behavior.

The cause is unknown. Some scientists believe it is genetic. Others believe it is genetics triggered by environmental factors.

There is no medical treatment and no cure. But according to the Autism Society of America, “People with this disorder can be highly functional. Whatever the diagnosis, children with autism can learn and function productively and show gains with appropriate education and treatment.”

Like other Athens teen-agers, Ben attends classes at Athens High.

“My favorite subject is football,” he says. He isn’t a starter. He plays “sometimes,” he says. But, he practices hard and waits for his turn.

“Some of the players don’t want to go in,” Ben says. “I do. I always want to go in.”

Parents sometimes wonder what kind of children they have raised, how their children behave when they aren’t watching. Russell says more than a few Golden Eagles’ parents should be proud of their sons.

She names players who have been especially good to her son – William Ming, Jake Moore, Ethan Hobbs, Martin Evans, Jacques Price, Maurice Ratliff and Alfred McCullough.

“They are fabulous to Ben,” she says.

The players know Ben as a worker.

“He always tries his hardest,” says William Ming, 16, a line backer and tight end who knew Ben for years before they started playing football together in ninth grade. “He always does what the coaches tell him to do. He gives 100 percent.”

“He makes a tackle,” says Jacquez Pride, 18, wide receiver for the Golden Eagles. “If he doesn’t know something, he’s always asking questions.”

Pride has been a teammate of Ben’s since 10th grade.

“Ben works real hard,” says Ethan Hobbs, 16, a line backer has been a teammate of Ben’s since seventh grade. “He is determined to play.”

Russell credits Athens Middle School coach Martin Bailey with turning Ben onto football, the activity that has given him focus and camaraderie through the years.

“He embraced Ben like no one has probably ever done,” she recalls. “In eighth grade he took him from the get go and said, ‘come on.’ ”

Finding a niche is crucial to the development of the autistic.

“What gets me about the situation is that kids with special needs fall through the cracks,” she says. “I was determined that he would not.”

She says autistic children need a core group, whether it is yearbook staff, football or drama.

Coach Jerry Davis is Ben’s favorite coach, not to take anything away from Bailey or Coach Allen Creasy. Ben is a defensive player and Davis is a defensive coach, so Ben spends more time with him. He has been his coach since ninth grade.

“He is nice,” Ben says.

When asked if Davis ever yells, which coaches sometimes do, Ben says, “Not much.”

“I love him a lot,” he says. “And he loves me.”

Davis says Ben is “a great kid and I enjoy having him.”

Ben calls Davis “Big Coach” because he’s a big man and because he’s the defensive-line coach. Where ever Big Coach goes, so goes Ben.

“Every step he makes, Ben is right behind him,” Russell says. “I had a talk with Ben and told him don’t shadow the coach all the time. He’ll be in the trenches and he might get upset. ”

During a recent game, she saw Ben tagging behind Davis again. She talked to her son before the second half, and Ben replied, “Coach Davis said to stay close to so he doesn’t have to look for me when he wants to put me in.”

“He never misses a practice and he has more heart than anyone on the team,” says Russell, who moved to Athens from Georgia seven years ago so she could take over Craig Building Supply, the business her father started in 1978.

Having a child with autism is not an easy road, but Russell concentrates on the good, as does her son.

“Middle school was the worst,” she says. Students were more apt to tease or name-call.

Today, players sometimes tease Ben, but his mother tries to assure him that they are kidding.

“If he ever he gets upset, I have to explain. I say, ‘Well Ben, you know those boys love you.’ They pick at him. But if an outsider picked on him, there is not a kid on that team that would no be all over them.”

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Autistic football player By Kim Rynders/News-Courier photographer (Click for larger image)

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