The Play of the Year

November 18, 2002

Jake Porter is 17, but he can't read, can barely scrawl his first
name and often mixes up the letters at that. So how come we're
all learning something from him?

In three years on the Northwest High football team, in McDermott,
Ohio, Jake had never run with the ball. Or made a tackle. He'd
barely ever stepped on the field. That's about right for a kid
with chromosomal fragile X syndrome, a disorder that is a common
cause of mental retardation.

But every day after school Jake, who attends special-ed classes,
races to Northwest team practices: football, basketball, track.
Never plays, but seldom misses one.

That's why it seemed crazy when, with five seconds left in a
recent game that Northwest was losing 42--0, Jake trotted out to
the huddle. The plan was for him to get the handoff and take a
knee.

Northwest's coach and Jake's best friend, Dave Frantz, called a
timeout to talk about it with the opposing coach, Waverly's Derek
Dewitt. Fans could see there was a disagreement. Dewitt was
shaking his head and waving his arms.

After a ref stepped in, play resumed and Jake got the ball. He
started to genuflect, as he'd practiced all week. Teammates
stopped him and told him to run, but Jake started going in the
wrong direction. The back judge rerouted him toward the line of
scrimmage.

Suddenly, the Waverly defense parted like peasants for the king
and urged him to go on his grinning sprint to the end zone.
Imagine having 21 teammates on the field. In the stands mothers
cried and fathers roared. Players on both sidelines held their
helmets to the sky and whooped.

In the red-cheeked glee afterward, Jake's mom, Liz, a single
parent and a waitress at a coffee shop, ran up to the 295-pound
Dewitt to thank him. But she was so emotional, no words would
come.

Turns out that before the play Dewitt had called his defense over
and said, "They're going to give the ball to number 45. Do not
touch him! Open up a hole and let him score! Understand?"

It's not the kind of thing you expect to come out of a football
coach's mouth, but then Derek Dewitt is not your typical coach.
Originally from the Los Angeles area, he's the first black coach
in the 57-year history of a conference made up of schools along
the Ohio-Kentucky border. He'd already heard the n word at two
road games this season, once through the windows of a locker
room. Yet he was willing to give up his first shutout for a white
kid he'd met only two hours earlier.

"I told Derek before the play, 'This is the young man we talked
about on the phone,'" Frantz recalled. "'He's just going to get
the ball and take a knee.' But Derek kept saying, 'No, I want him
to score.' I couldn't talk him out of it!"

"I met Jake before the game, and I was so impressed," Dewitt
said. "All my players knew him from track. So, when the time
came, touching the ball just didn't seem good enough." (By the
way, Dewitt and his team got their shutout the next week, 7--0
against Cincinnati Mariemont.)

Into every parade a few stink bombs must fall. Mark Madden of the
Pittsburgh Post-Gazette grumbled that if the mentally challenged
want to participate in sports, "let them do it at the Special
Olympics. Leave high school football alone, and for heaven's
sake, don't put the fix in." A few overtestosteroned Neanderthals
on an Internet site complained, "That isn't football."

No, it became bigger than football. Since it happened, people in
the two towns just seem to be treating one another better. Kids
in the two schools walk around beaming. "I have this bully in one
of my [phys-ed] classes," says Dewitt. "He's a rough,
out-for-himself type kid. The other day I saw him helping a
couple of special-needs kids play basketball. I about fell over."

Jake is no different, though. Still happy as a frog in a bog.
Still signs the teachers' register in the principal's office
every morning, ready to "work." Still gets sent on errands,
forgets where he's going and ends up in Frantz's office. Still
talks all the time, only now it's to NBC, ESPN and affiliates
from CBS and Fox about his touchdown that won the game.

Yeah, Jake Porter thinks his 49-yard run made for a comeback
victory. He thinks he was the hero. He thinks that's why there
were so many grins and streaks down people's faces.

Smart kid.

B/W PHOTO: JEFFERY A. SALTER

Suddenly the Waverly defense parted and urged Jake to go on his
grinning sprint to the end zone.

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)