Johnny Tate was on the field, his head cocked back, his eyes shut tight. His hand was pressed against his chest as he and his fellow rugby players stood for the national anthem.
The air was seasonably crisp on the campus of the College Settlement Camp in Horsham.
As Tate hit the field to warm up, his parents joined others on the sidelines gripping cups of coffee and eyeing prime spots to take in the game — the better to cheer their boys on.
It’s a scene that plays out every weekend in towns and cities everywhere, and therein lies the beauty: the extraordinary ordinariness of it all.
For parents of children with disabilities, these moments can be hard to come by, laser-focused as they must be on their children’s health and well-being, both now and in that angst-inducing future where they won’t always be around.
But now? Now there was Johnny, 19, his father’s namesake, born with methylmalonic acidemia, a rare genetic disease that led to a liver transplant five years ago, playing alongside his good friend Colin Arnold, 20, and Michael Guerin, 40, and holy moly, someone shouted from the crowd, Dylan Siveter, 14, who at the moment was unstoppable on the field, along with a couple of dozen players of varying ages and abilities.
“Honestly, I thought that Johnny would never be able to do this because of his medical condition,” said his mom, Lourdes. She explained that in addition to some developmental issues, the disease causes numbness and weakness in Johnny’s limbs. “This is the very first time he’s played on a field, running, full speed. The first time in his life — and we are so thrilled.”
Johnny’s father, John, looked as if he might burst with pride: “The first day we actually got up on a Saturday and got ready for a sporting event probably in 19 years. It feels normal. … He popped up, showered. He was excited. It’s such a morale booster for him.”
And a gift, they said, for parents like them.
“They’re miracle workers,” John Tate said of organizers. “We’ve been dealing with medical issues for all these years, and we just survive. For people who volunteer to put this stuff together … it’s just a game changer for us.”
The idea for the team came from Blackthorn Rugby Football Club’s director of special projects, Allan Corless. Corless’ son, AJ, is autistic, and while he’s coached special-needs teams for decades, starting an all-ages, mixed-abilities rugby team — the first in the country as far as he knows — is something he’d long wanted to do.
The response was overwhelming.
Weeks of practices with dedicated coaches who not only taught the players the fundamentals of the sport but also the fundamentals of sportsmanship led to the highly anticipated exhibition game. Players were split into two teams and were joined on the field by coaches who played alongside the new players.
The rule, this time around, was no contact, but the exuberance on and off the field sometimes led to some good-natured and harmlessly spirited play.
“Go, Col. Keep running, Col. … Tag him, Col!” Maureen Arnold cheered her son, Colin.
Behind her, Lourdes Tate squeaked: “Don’t get hurt,” before both women laughed. Their sons are good friends, but on this day, they were on opposing teams.
“We’re both really good moms,” Arnold said, laughing. “We just have different parenting styles.”
Many of the new rugby players are athletes in their own right, playing on numerous sports teams during the year and participating in the Special Olympics. But from the start, parents and players sensed something different about this sport, and the club.
“Rugby really changed my life,” said Johnny Tate. “All the kids and friends who I’ve met. It’s very life-changing, and that’s what being a team player is all about.”
Here, they were treated like one of the guys — fellow ruggers. And the parents beamed looking at their boys out there, rising to the challenge, having the time of their lives.
“It gives them a sense of belonging and competitiveness and toughness,” Lourdes Tate said.
“They look tough,” she added approvingly.
Soon, the game was over. Coach Corless, the official scorekeeper, declared it a tie. No one questioned the call. On that day, everyone won.
Coaches and teammates vowed to return in the spring, and formed a tunnel for the players to run through before congregating for a parting gift that included a personalized letter to each athlete.
“Welcome to the great game of rugby and to the Blackthorn Rugby Football Club," it said.