A golden dusk settles over the field at Fort Myers High School. Lights power on.
Tonight, there will be football.
It was early September, the first game of the season for the visiting JV team from North Fort Myers (Fla.) High. The Red Knights were the underdogs in this rivalry after losing every game as freshmen. Their coaches shepherd them to the end zone.
The biggest guy in this cluster of promise and testosterone is No. 90, C.J. Lepley. C.J. sucks in his girth as teammate Devin Ryan tugs the jersey over C.J.’s shoulder pads. C.J. yanks until it stops at his ribs and he can exhale.
The 16-year-old loves most everything about football, except squeezing into this jersey that fits like a sports bra. He wears an XXXXL tee below it.
When Devin is not there, other teammates offer a hand. Football players aren’t known for being kind, but these kids look out for each other.
Devin and C.J. join the huddle.
the battles we go through in life.
We ask for the chance to spare …
... The chance to do or dare.
Their voices grow louder until they sound like a band of fire-and-brimstone preachers.
We get better and better. ’
Til we can’t be beat ...
Won’t be beat!”
Anything seems possible — the days of toil in practice gain meaning, as the football spirals through the indigo sky. That is until a Fort Myers High player catches it and sprints to the 40, 30, 10 …TOUCHDOWN! Seventeen seconds in, the Red Knights are losing.
Several minutes later, C.J. squints at the scoreboard. He can’t tell if there’s a 4, 7, or 1.
“How much time is left?” C.J. asks Devin, who doesn’t like to hit or be hit. Devin is an honors math student off the field.
Devin is also C.J.’s guide on the sidelines, where the pair spend most of the games. He calls out the plays C.J. can’t see, like who fumbled a pass or who made a tackle.
He does this because C.J. is legally blind, even with the goggles he wears. His vision is 20/200, meaning a person with perfect vision can see things that are 10 times smaller than what he can at 20 feet.
There are few legally blind kids playing football. There are not many 380-pound kids on the field either. There is no kid like C.J. Lepley. He has every excuse not to play.
It’s hard. It’s hot. It’s pain.
Glory is rare for the kids who are not stars. But, like C.J., they still run, they cheer, they sweat, they sacrifice and risk body and mind. They won’t win scholarships. They won’t hear their names chanted by the crowd. They play for the love of the game, tradition and team.
“Lepley!” yells coach Scott Kilhefner, who is hungry for a win for his players.
Kilhefner orders him in as a nose guard. He jogs out to join the defensive line, wishing he were faster. Then, he’d be a Mack truck instead of a boulder. Then, he’d play more than a few minutes a game. Then, maybe he’d even be a star.
When assistant coach Bobby Louk scanned the North Fort Myers High weight room this past summer, he saw a different C.J. among the boys sacrificing vacation to become stronger.
He saw a kid with pride.
“Most fellas his size wouldn’t have made it,” Louk said. “He has a real big heart.”
C.J. joined football as a freshman because he was fat. He wanted to be less so.
Shane Makar, a North varsity coach and family friend, encouraged him.
“If we can make him growl, we can tighten him up,” he told C.J.’s godmother, Susie Gillespie, who is also Makar’s grandmother.
The first problem was getting him home from practice. His mother can’t afford a car. Makar offered to drive him to his family’s trailer in Suncoast Estates in North Fort Myers, where mobile homes and poverty are common denominators for many families.
“If it’s the way he can play, that’s what I got to do,” he said.
At the first practice, C.J.’s legs buckled during sprints. For a few seconds, he couldn’t rise, but knew he’d be trampled if he didn’t. He peeled his aching body from the ground.
He had never run that much in his life.
“Maybe when McDonald’s had half off?” he joked. But, seriously, as a little kid, he preferred watching reruns of Seinfeld to playing outside.
Despite the pain, he didn’t quit and he liked the admiration he drew from other players when he didn’t. He returned to practices because he knew people doubted he would.
Louk didn’t know about C.J.’s vision until this year.
C.J. doesn’t hide it, but doesn’t announce it. As a baby, C.J. was diagnosed with congenital myopia and nystagmus after his mother noticed his eyes shot back and forth. They still oscillate at times, which makes the world look like he’s riding over speed bumps. Nystagmus also interferes with balance and coordination. North Fort Myers optometrist Terry Tucker has treated C.J. since he was a baby. He has given him sport goggles to use. He says C.J. is doing very well; his vision is not getting any worse.
Louk watched as C.J. lifted a bar weighted with 135 pounds. Gaze focused, his arms trembled. C.J. hasn’t lost a lot of weight, but has gained muscle. He can squat 315 pounds, and his goal is to beat the squat record of 515 in North’s weight room, when he moves on to varsity.
Coach Bill Sandifer whistled for the guys to head outside. Time for running drills, which C.J. dreads. The coaches aim to push them to exhaustion. Conditioning has been a weakness not just for C.J., but for his entire team. They have meat, but are leaner on speed.
C.J. lunged, shuffled and grunted as not to be the last each time.
“C’mon C.J., push it baby!” a player shouted.
“Don’t get lazy, Lepley!” Sandifer ordered.
“You can do it, C.J.!” another player yelled.
Soaked in sweat, he gasped for breath.
“I’m not fast, but I’m sexy,” he said to laughter from his teammates.
His family says he’s more confident and happier since joining the team.
“I kind of always knew he was going to be a force to be reckoned with,” said his 36-year-old sister, Kathlene Brown.
He feels stronger, too. His teammates are like family.
“Football helped me become more confident based upon the camaraderie I feel with my fellow teammates and the personal knowledge I can do stuff. I’m not just there taking space. It’s helped me become who I am,” he said. “I have a lot of friends because of it.”
He was ready for the season. As a nose guard, he doesn’t have to see well to play. His aim: hit the guy in front of him. He enjoys the manly stuff. He guesses it comes from some caveman instinct. He’s not an angry kid, though he could very well be.
More than six years ago, on a Friday the 13th, C.J.’s gaze veered from the Cartoon Network to see the father for whom he was named head out the door. C.J. stands for Charles Jr. He moved away to be with C.J.’s older brother’s ex-girlfriend. His mother, Charlene Lawrence, couldn’t afford rent, and moved herself, him and his two younger sisters, Hope and Faith, into tents in a Suncoast yard.
“It didn’t help the stigma against me because, you know, I was in a tent,” he said. “But I wasn’t like an Ethiopian child.”
The News-Press published an article.
“We are using a bucket to urinate in,” said a 10-year-old C.J.
He thought using the word “urinate” would make him sound smart. (For the record: He doesn’t need proof. His IQ checked in around 137, superior intelligence, in fifth grade. Now, he quotes Plato.) But he didn’t think of the social ramification of divulging their bathroom habits.
Donations poured in. The Suncoast Neighborhood Task Force, which runs the community center and pantry, rallied residents to move C.J.’s family into a home. Husband-and-wife Suncoast leaders, Susie and James Gillespie, became his godparents.
Back then, C.J. was the target of lunchroom bullies.
“It was a lot of ‘Insert generic fat joke here,’” said C.J., who is a sophomore.
Bullying pushed him to a place of shyness, his family said. But it’s not an issue at North. He told his mother it’s the best school he has attended. His mother credits football. He credits his quick humor, being able to throw jokes first.
“Everybody loves the funny guy,” he said.
In the years since the task force helped them, C.J., Hope, Faith, and their mother have become fixtures at the center, volunteering to hand out groceries each week they can, picking up trash on the roads and serving food at fundraisers. At his very first football game, dozens of friends from the center, relatives and people from Lighthouse of SWFL, where he receives services for the visually impaired, showed up to cheer.
“At one time, I think he believed his life was going to be screwed up because of where he was,” said James Gillespie, who is grooming C.J. to be a Suncoast leader. “He was very fertile. He just needed something to grow in. That boy is going places.”
He credits C.J.’s mother for steering him right.
Lawrence, 54, works at a Goodwill store. She dreams of moving her family to a bigger place. C.J.’s bed takes up half of his room. The 15-year-old twin girls share the other room. Lawrence sleeps on the couch. She dreams of a home where she doesn’t wake up to her lawn chair or clothesline missing, or a man walking nearby, high on drugs, as she waits with Hope and Faith for their bus.
“We’re not going back,” she said. “We’re moving up.”
In early September, Lawrence’s eyes tracked C.J. as he ran onto the field at his first game. She was in the front row, where she always tries to sit. Hope and Faith cheered. Lawrence sat taller, hands on knees, craning to see her No. 90.
She’s not much of a football fan, aside from when it comes to her son.
C.J. bent his knees to face a taller center, who bolted around him. Fourteen seconds later, he returned to the sidelines. The coach tapped him affectionately on the helmet.
“I don’t care if he only went out for a minute,” she said. “It makes him happy and that’s why we’re here. To wear that helmet, that makes him happy.”
When he told her he wanted to go out for football, she worried, but didn’t dissuade him.
“Boy, did he ever prove us wrong,” she smiled.
The Red Knights were down 25 points in the second half.
“This is their history, unfortunately,” she said. Many of the kids come from the North Fort Myers Academy for the Arts. “You put them on stage and they could win an Emmy.”
The buzzer sounded. Game over. The coaches assured the players, heads hanging, they were proud. They couldn’t think of kids who have worked harder. It was a defeat, but that’s football. That’s life. C.J. was disappointed with how he played the 3 minutes, 11 seconds he was in the game.
“Sorry coach,” he mumbled out of earshot. “They were fast, a lot faster than I am.”
But the season awaited.
“It’s our house! Our house! Our house!” a running back with his arm in a sling shouts, pacing before C.J. and his teammates stretching. He is one of four injured starters for North’s home game against the East Lee County High Jaguars.
The coaches offer some final advice.
Use your size! Hit ’em hard! Put your foot on the pedal! Feel the pain!
Their prospects for winning seem dim, but their spirits are not.
“What time is it?” the appointed team screamer calls.
“Game time!” they shout.
A crescent moon rises over the stands, where an American flag waves. Cheerleaders shake their pompoms at dads and moms. Barbecue tempts from the concession. Rock music pumps. North knows how to host a football game.
C.J. and Devin stake spots on the sidelines. The game begins and yellow flags fly. C.J. goes in as a tackle after a personal foul; he’s not typically a tackle and forgets the play. He jogs back out after a minute. A starter slaps him on the butt. Good job, a coach tells him.
In the second quarter, the North quarterback sprints toward the end zone and TOUCHDOWN! The team picks up the extra point. They are winning, 7-0. Devin and C.J. follow the plays, but also debate on which day Yom Kippur falls. C.J. teases Devin about his resemblance to Harry Potter. Devin makes cracks about C.J.’s weight.
Halftime comes and the Red Knights are up, but attitude may jeopardize their shot at the win they’ve been waiting for so long. They’ve given up 60 yards in penalties.
The coaches scold them for out-of-bounds tussling with their opponents.
Then, coach Sandifer lowers his voice and steps before the sweating players on bended knee.
“This is where it comes, right here,” Sandifer touches his heart. “Do you guys want it?”
“Yes sir!” the team roars.
The Red Knights manage to hold off the Jaguars. C.J. doesn’t play, but that doesn’t matter. When the clock hits zero, he is a winner, and finally so is his team. North triumphs 10-0.
C.J. grabs Devin’s face guard and knocks helmets. He bumps his barrel chest with his teammates-turned-brothers. He belongs with the victors. He runs off the field, fist to the night sky. He leans back and yowls with the 25 boys who feel like men tonight.
“Red Knight Pride!”
Janine Zeitlin writes for the News-Press, a Gannett property.