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Audubon celebrates special touchdown by special player

It was the most special of touchdowns, a long kickoff return that brought spectators on both sides of the field to their feet in sustained applause.

It was the most special of touchdowns, a long kickoff return that brought spectators on both sides of the field to their feet in sustained applause.

The football players, coaches and teachers from Audubon High School know that was only fitting, because it was scored by the most special of seniors.

Michael Arechavala said his unforgettable 65-yard race to the end zone was "fun."

It was so much more than that to the convoy of teammates that escorted the Green Wave's beloved special-needs student along the right sideline during an untimed play at the start of the 52nd annual Thanksgiving Day game between Audubon and Haddon Township.

It was a remarkable moment: Athletes from both sides, coaches from both sides and fans from both sides celebrating a play that showcased more about the wonder of sports than any spectacular run, throw or catch at any level during football's annual holiday.

"I get chills just talking about it," said Audubon coach Dom Koehl, whose team finished the season with a 45-6 victory before a large crowd at Bendorf-Narducci Stadium.

Arechavala, who has Down syndrome, is so popular in the halls of Audubon that he's known as "The Mayor."

The 18-year-old from Mount Ephraim has been a four-year member of the football program, and he also participates in wrestling and baseball.

He's an Eagle Scout, too.

"We've told him since he was little that he can do anything that anybody else can do," Donna Arechavala said of her son.

Actually, other students have a hard time keeping up with Michael, whose energy, upbeat personality and can-do spirit serves as an inspiration to his schoolmates.

"He just won't stop," Audubon senior tight end Dan Wilson said. "Everybody loves Mike."

Audubon senior Jahmir Chatman said Arechavala brings "everybody together" because of his relentlessly positive attitude.

"He brings us together as a family, the team, the community, everybody," Chatman said.

Koehl and his assistants decided before the season they wanted to do something to acknowledge Arechavala's dedication to the program.

"We wanted to honor him," Koehl said.

Audubon and Haddon Township officials worked out the details, coordinating efforts with the New Jersey State Interscholastic Athletic Association as well as the local board of officials.

"Football is a fraternity," Haddon Township coach Mike Sheridan said. "You try to win. We're all competitors. But at the end of the day, we're all brothers."

Haddon Township won the coin toss and returned the opening kickoff for a touchdown.

That set the stage for Arechavala's return.

"We practiced it four or five times [during the week]," Koehl said. "We wanted to make sure Mike was ready."

Haddon Township practiced the play as well, making sure that all the Hawks on the kickoff team engaged with a blocker and cleared the way for Arechavala.

"I can't say enough about how great Haddon Township was in this," Koehl said.

Arechavala took a lateral from a teammate on the kickoff and was off to the races.

"I never saw him run that fast," Audubon senior Joe Zuccarelli said. "It was like something you dream about. We were all so happy. He's the nicest kid I know."

Here's what was priceless: The reaction on the Audubon sideline, from the players to the coaches to the folks sitting in concrete stands in the historic old stadium.

This was genuine joy, not polite applause or simple appreciation. It was clear this was Arechavala's special moment, and everybody else's, too.

"People always say Michael brings out the best in everybody," Donna Arechavala said.

Standing on the field after another Thanksgiving Day game, Koehl was struck by his good fortunate to have coached such a special player and to have been part of such a special scene.

"That's what I love about this town," Koehl said. "I always say there are two days when Audubon represents the American Dream, the 4th of July and today.

"You could see it. You could feel it, how special it was for everybody to be a part of this."

The day's hero posed for pictures with his senior classmates and with his coach after the game, milling around the 50-yard line after the last game of his career.

"Fun," he said again of his touchdown run.

It was fun.

And it was so much more than that.

Haddon Twp. 6 0 0 0 - 6

Audubon 13 19 13 0 - 45

HT: Frank Hapstak 70 kickoff return (no attempt)

A: Michael Arechavala 65 kickoff return (no attempt)

A: Dan Wilson 4 pass from Matt Connelly (Danny McRory kick)

A: Damere Hampton 50 pass from Connelly (McRory kick)

A: Shane Snyder 32 run (kick fail)

A: Hampton 43 pass from Connelly (kick fail)

A: Jahmor Chatman 1 pass from Connelly (kick fail)

A: Jesse Efymow recovered blocked punt in end zone (McRory kick)