With the final snap under Friday night lights, the dream of an 18-year-old with Down syndrome came true.
As his team faced Poughkeepsie (N.Y.) High School Josiah O’Brien, team manager of the Yorktown (Yorktown Heights, N.Y.) High School football team for four years, scored the final touchdown.
With the crowd chanting “Josiah! Josiah!” he took a handoff on the 20-yard line and barreled straight ahead untouched to the end zone, where his teammates came to mob him.
“That was fun,” O’Brien said after Yorktown won 48-27.
As a Senior Night honor, coach Mike Rescigno called a special play, the “Vince Papale Right,” named for the Philadelphia bartender who made O’Brien’s beloved Eagles team at age 30. He was also the inspiration for “Invincible” — one of O’Brien’s favorite movies.
O’Brien is among 400,000 Americans living with Down syndrome. His touchdown run brought tears to the eyes of many in the crowd.
“Josiah is a spiritually grounded kid, who reminds you what life is all about,” Rescigno said. “And he has taught me about leadership. After one game he told me, ‘Coach, we need to throw more and you need to yell less.’ And that’s something I’ll never forget.”
Rescigno came up with the idea this week when contemplating how best to honor all the team’s seniors, including O’Brien. Both of his brothers — Danny and Jonathan —played on the team during their high school years.
The football players have long had a soft spot in their hearts for O’Brien. In 2012, O’Brien won the team’s “Twelfth Man Award” at his annual banquet.
O’Brien, a son of the Rev. Dan O’Brien, pastor of Calvary Bible Church in Yorktown, has carved out an active life in Yorktown. At Yorktown High, he attends its Life Skills special education program. He attends teen Bible study at the church, practices drumming each afternoon in the sanctuary and occasionally sits in on drums for the praise band during worship services. He can recite verses from Psalm 1. He isn’t shy about sharing his religious beliefs with his friends and teammates.
Like many Westchester teens, he has an after-school job. Once a week, he reports to Tazza Café in Somers, where owner Ed Novak, who used to coach youth basketball with O’Brien’s father, has the teen do restocking and cleaning.
“What I’ve learned is that kids like Josiah with Down syndrome can be extremely bright,” he said. “And he has an incredible sense of humor.”
O’Brien began as team manager in 2009, when Rescigno asked him to join the school’s tight-knit football family. On game days this year, he has worn the Yorktown black and green with the number 75. Senior Night, however, was different. He came out with the team, wearing shoulder pads, hip pads and helmet.
“When I mentioned it to the team on Thursday, everybody came together for Josiah,” said Rescingo. “It gave me goose bumps.”
David McKay Wilson also writes for The Journal-News.