It didn’t matter if Jacob B. Kohler got in the football game between the Orchard Park Quakers and the Pittsford Panthers on Friday night.
“I thought it was a great win,” he said.
But the 18-year-old was not talking about the game.
The fifth-year senior won his fight to play for the Quakers for a fourth year.
“I just want to play football,” Kohler said earlier in the day, after learning Thursday he would be able to take the field Friday night with the 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.
Jacob 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. On Thursday Elia issued a stay, allowing Kohler to take the field with his team until a full decision is made.
It was the season-opening game for Orchard Park and dozens of other Western New York high school football teams.
It wasn’t just the Kohlers who were hoping he would be able to play.
Kohler’s struggle gained publicity, and fans who don’t know him, like Barb Kane of Buffalo, who was there to watch her nephew, Connor Houlihan, were talking about Kohler.
“I’m just glad they rescinded it and are allowing him to play,” Kane said.
Kohler’s parents were glad for the support.
“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.”
Lisa Kohler said it was wonderful to watch her son run onto the field with the rest of the team.
“We feel so blessed. We realize there are so many things that are going on out there that are so much more important, but this is everything to us,” she said. “It just fills my heart.”
Kohler is not one of the starters, and was not expecting to 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.