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Autistic Orchard Park student: ‘I just want to play football’

“I just want to play football,” Jacob B. Kohler said, a day after the fifth-year senior learned that he would be able to take the field Friday night with the Orchard Park Quakers.

Kohler and his parents, Lisa and Scott, couldn’t believe they had to fight so hard to get to this point.

Section VI, which governs high school sports in Western New York, ruled that the 18-year-old had exhausted his four years of high school sports eligibility.

He was diagnosed with autism as a child, and needs a fifth year to graduate. He played three years of football, and was hoping to finish a fourth year. The Kohlers contended his autism disability prevented him from being physically and mentally ready to play sports during his freshman year, and he should be afforded another year.

They appealed the ruling to New York State Education Commissioner MaryEllen Elia, who, in essence, called an audible and did an end around. It usually takes months for appeals to the commissioner to run their course. Thursday, she issued a stay, allowing Kohler to take the field with his team until a full decision is made.

It came one day before the Quakers - and dozens of other Western New York high school football teams - hold season-opening games. Orchard Park will play at home at 7 p.m. against Pittsford Mendon.

“We’ve never asked for something special for Jack. We simply wanted them to follow the rules,” Scott Kohler said Friday morning at the football field.

“It’s just amazing, the outpouring of support,” Lisa Kohler said.

The family’s struggle went public, and they gained the support of state Sen. Tim Kennedy, D-Buffalo, who started an online petition asking officials to let Kohler play. The petition garnered more than 2,300 signatures.

“They and others in a similar situation as the Kohler family should never have to deal with this sort of thing,” Kennedy said. “The state should be helping individuals to gain access to sports, helping individuals use sports as a means to better their education.”

Kohler is not one of the starters, and may not get into the game. But practicing and being part of the team, and proudly wearing Quaker maroon and No. 29 has helped him in and out of the classroom.

“I don’t think anything has had more of a positive influence in my life than football,” he said.


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