"If you think something is impossible, keep trying. If you like it, keep doing it, because you are succeeding."
These are words of wisdom from Joseph "Sepp" Shirey, a 12-year-old boy living with his family in Mechanicsville, Va. Like lots of kids, Sepp eats, sleeps and breathes sports. He's on a football, baseball and swim team, and also dabbles in skiing and basketball. Friends and teammates appointed Sepp "commissioner of neighborhood backyards and playgrounds." Unlike other kids, however, Sepp is living with cerebral palsy.
Now you might be surprised to learn that tackle football is Sepp's first love. He's been playing with friends since he was 5 years old.
"I love the hitting, reading the offense and reacting," he says.
When Sepp was nine, his friend Jack Goleski asked if he wanted to play organized football as a member of the Blue Star Cowboys, an affiliate of the Metro Youth Football League. Sepp said yes.
When I first met him, the physical signs of his CP were noticeable. He walks with an exaggerated limp. His muscle control is good, but not great, and his balance is easily disrupted. While he didn't fall during my visit with him, largely because he was sitting down for most of the time, Sepp falls down multiple times daily; occasionally face first into something unforgiving.
He goes to bed most nights telling stories of his new cuts and bruises, and apologizing for getting blood and grass stains on his clothes. In that way, Sepp is like so many other 12-year-old boys.
When Sepp was three years old, he underwent a neurosurgical procedure called a Selective Dorsal Root Rhizotomy, which aimed to reduce spasticity in his legs. Surgery was followed by strenuous physical therapy six days a week, and a lifetime of inconvenience that prevents him from, among other things, putting on and taking off his shoes. The experiences of a normal school day, which every other kid takes for granted, make Sepp so tired at the end of the day that he often comes home exhausted, covered in blisters on his hands and feet from his crutches. He often comes home sick from dehydration. It’s a grind that Sepp endures every day of his life, and yet, always with a smile that never seems to go away.
What Sepp may lack in physical ability, he more than makes up for with determination, effort, and a positive attitude well beyond his 12 years.
"I wanted to play organized football; it was simply a matter of convincing others that it was a good idea," Sepp says.
As it turns out, it was a great idea, and a story that inspires everyone who knows him, and many of those who don’t.
Mike Goleski has played football his entire life, and has been coaching his son Jack’s teams for a number of years. Jack¸ who has been playing football at school with his other friends and Sepp since they were five, came home from school one day and asked if Sepp could play on the Cowboys.
"Sure, he can be a part of the team," the father said to his eager son.
The reality was Goleski, like most others including the head coach of the Cowboys, T.C. Wilson, was thinking that Sepp would have a role as team manager, not as a player. Of course they wanted him to play, but how could he? What they didn’t realize however, was that Sepp and his dad, Hunter Shirey, had entirely different plans.
Having the apparent blessing of the Cowboys coaches was only the beginning of what would be a mountain of concern and curiosity that Sepp and his parents, Hunter and Jenny, had to navigate in order to make this dream a reality. From day one, Hunter was on board with the idea. He knew Sepp was going to find a way to make it happen, but he also knew the harsh realities that the adult world could sometimes levy. Like most fathers, Hunter grew up playing football, and wanted to see his boy play, too. He knew however, that nothing like this had ever been done before, and it was going to take some persistence, outside the box thinking and even a bit of luck.
There was also the small matter of convincing his wife, Jenny, even though the couple was determined from the moment their son was born that they would never hold him back from achieving his dreams.
"We agreed that if we would let Sepp do something had he not been born with CP, that they would let him do it with CP," says Jenny. Like every rule however, there was an exception, and that exception in this instance -- with all emphasis attached -- was a ban against playing organized football.
Armed with the knowledge that Sepp wanted to play with the Cowboys, Hunter, who works in sports medicine himself, decided the best course of action to keep his marriage intact was to engage the age old practice of keeping quiet. Hunter wanted to see how far this would go before making the pitch to Jenny that the ban on organized football needed to be lifted. Little did Hunter know that the cat would soon get out of the bag, and the strength of the family unity was about to be immeasurably tested.
On a summer day in 2009, Jenny was sitting at the neighborhood pool with friends and her children, when Coach Goleski approached her. He said Sepp was going to play for the Cowboys in the fall. Jenny was not happy. She was never going to be convinced that Sepp would be reasonably safe, and that playing organized tackle football was a good idea. In her mind, the exception to the rule was still very much in place.
"I was never worried about Sepp playing tackle football in the backyard," Jenny says. "But for him to play organized football, that was entirely different, and something that I was not in favor of."
With his wife in the know, Hunter was fully aware that their son's safety fell squarely on his shoulders. Hunter knew that one misstep by anyone, and Jenny would not allow Sepp to play football. Hunter also knew deep down that Sepp's heart would more than make up where his physical abilities lacked. So, like any father in this position would, Hunter did two things.
"I prepared to sleep on the couch," he says, "and took Sepp shopping for football gear."
After they purchased all that expensive equipment, Hunter recalls that on the way home, "all Sepp talked about was getting home and placing his plastic mouthpiece in a pot boiling water," -- a true right of passage for any boy who plays football.
On the first day of August practice, 2009, Sepp showed up ready to go. To call it hot in August in Virginia is to understate it significantly. But to Sepp, it didn’t matter, he was just excited to strap on his helmet and play football. Coach Goleski remembers it well.
"After just about every play, and sometimes before, Sepp would fall," he says. "He was covered in blood, sweat and dirt, and a smile from here to the moon, while the other players were complaining of cramps and fatigue."
Coach Goleski took one look at those boys and suggested that they ought to not be complaining about such trivial things. The message was loud and clear, and from that point forward, the focus would be on football.
As the season neared, there was still the matter of convincing Jenny that it was okay for Sepp to play.
"The way I see it, he is safer playing football than he is walking to the school bus stop," Hunter says. "At least this way, when he falls, he's wearing pads and a helmet."
Realizing the season was only weeks away, Jenny called Sepp's neurosurgeon, to have him advise Hunter that playing football would place Sepp at significant risk.
"This way, I wouldn't be the bad guy," Jenny says.
To her surprise, however, Sepp was cleared by his neurosurgeon and pediatrician to play. Jenny still wasn't convinced. Out of ammunition against Sepp playing football, she reacted by distancing herself, and not attending practices. Then, that first week of practice, Jenny received an email from a close friend and fellow team mother.
"You won't believe what your son is doing," Jenny heard. "He is absolutely amazing. You need to come see this."
This email was followed by a flood of messages just like it. Jenny finally came to terms with what many others already knew, that her son could play football.
Finally, after weeks of practice, Sepp was ready for his first game. By rule, each player must participate in four plays, not including special teams. When he checked in to the game at wide receiver, the referee stopped the game and walked over to Coach Goleski.
"What now?" he thought to himself.
The referee reached him and said, "I've been refereeing games for more than thirty years, and have flipped this coin at the beginning of every one of the games I’ve called. If you’d give this coin to that young man [Sepp], it sure would mean a lot to me."
There was not a dry eye to be found on the sideline that day, including on the face of Coach Goleski.
But Sepp has a different version of his first live play from scrimmage.
"I lined up across from my opponent," he says, "and when the ball was snapped, I fell to the ground and curled into a ball. I was so nervous, and that was all that I could think to do."
He quickly settled in to the game, and on his next play, which was on defense, a lineman came on an end around toward him. This time, Sepp fell to the ground, got into a ball, and tripped the lineman, which ultimately led to a tackle assist. The Cowboys lost their first game however, and finally the never ending smile on Sepp's face, that everyone had come to love, was gone.
For Sepp to realize his dream of playing organized football, it took a lot of hard work and commitment from his family, coaches and league administrators. Coach Wilson was instrumental among them, and in gaining league approval for Sepp to play. The Cowboys were for everyone, he argued, including Sepp.
"It was never an issue for me or any of my friends," says Hayden Moore, Sepp's classmate and teammate. "We knew he could play with us, and it was honor for him to be a part of our team. It made me appreciate all that I have to be thankful for, and we were glad to call Sepp a Blue Star Cowboy."
Hayden's father, Tim Moore, is also a coach for the Cowboys. Moore recalls the first time he saw Sepp on the football field, and immediately realizing that "all he wanted to do was play football; he didn't want any special treatment, and he didn't get any."
Tim did do one extra special thing for Sepp. Whenever the boy would fall at football practice, Tim would run the sniper drill, designed as though Sepp had been knocked down by sniper fire. "They got Sepp," Tim would shout. "Everybody down! Everybody down!" No matter where the players were on the field, they'd drop to the ground, pretending to take cover. Once it was deemed "safe" by Coach Moore, the kids would help each other back up. Whether Tim knew it or not, the sniper drill resonated with the players. During each game, whenever Sepp fell, his teammates were there to pick him back up, and get him ready for the next play.
"He kept begging me to put him in at linebacker, and I finally developed a plan that would work," Coach Goleski says. "I lined up my son Jack at linebacker, told Sepp to hold on to Jack's pant leg, and follow him through the hole. This would safely allow him the feeling of stuffing a run, or so I thought."
As it turns out, when the ball was snapped, Jack went one way, and Sepp went the other. Sepp was headed right for the runner, unabated.
"I heard this loud thud, and the next thing I remember is seeing Sepp bent in half at the bottom of a pile, with arms and legs going everywhere,” the coach says. "I thought to myself, Jenny is going to kill me."
The crowd went completely silent.
Then, after the pile began to clear, Sepp's face appeared from under his helmet, plastered with a huge smile. "The crowd erupted in cheers," the coach says, "and I knew from that moment on, that he was a football player."
The words of a truly proud football coach.
After his first season of football, Sepp was hooked. He went on to play two more seasons (with a fourth season set to begin this fall), and even participated in a number of football camps. Last summer, he went to The College of William & Mary football camp, where he encountered the likes of Drew Brees, Troy Polamalu and Darren Sharper. There were nearly 1,000 campers, ages 9-17, there that hot July week. At the end of the camp, all of the coaches handed out various achievement awards, saving Most Valuable Camper for last. To no one’s surprise, it was Sepp Shirey.
When asked about how cool that camp was, and winning that award, Sepp wanted to talk about the fact that earlier that week he went out for a pass from his idol and favorite football player, Drew Brees, and dropped it. He appreciated the accolade, but he wants to win, and dropping that pass -- in his mind -- was a loss.
With three full seasons under their belt, Jenny has come to accept that her boy is a football player. But more than that, this whole experience has reaffirmed what she has known all along, that Sepp is much more than a football player; he’s a true inspiration. "Getting to see those kids rise up above their years and interact with Sepp the way they do makes me so proud and honored to be a part of all of this," Jenny says. And while she still gets nervous every time she sees her son folded up at the bottom of the pile, she knows that he's going to get up, and with a huge smile on his face. "That's all that matters," she says.
The Shireys have so many football memories about their son, but one seems to rise to the top: On the last play of the final football game last season, Sepp checked in at tailback. He was handed the ball and ran through a gaping hole opened by his teammates. There was nothing between him and the goal line except 80 yards of grass. As he reached the open field, Sepp realized the inevitable -- that his own two feet would trip him up before any defenders would. For 20 yards he ran as fast as he could before falling to the ground.
"It was beautiful to watch," his parents say in unison. "It was truly awesome."
William R. "Rob" Sievers is a Partner and Chair of the Sports and Entertainment Law practice group at TaylorWalker PC in Richmond, Va. Follow him on Twitter @SportsEsquire.
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