The Gowanda youth varsity football team traveled to Hamburg's Howe Field on Nov. 12 to play South Buffalo in the OATKA football/cheerleading league title game. The Panthers put forth a valiant effort but lost to the defending league champions, 18-12. After the game, players from both teams were presented a large trophy and hats to commemorate their outstanding athletic performance. But the greatest accomplishment of the night belonged to a boy who never played a down in the just-completed contest.
Immediately following the post-game presentation, both teams were summoned back onto the field with Gowanda on offense and South Buffalo taking its defensive positions at the 10-yard line. A football was then handed off to Gowanda's Zack Degenfelder, who raced over the goal line in his wheelchair, putting an exclamation mark on the long and successful season. The large crowd in attendance appreciatively applauded the special moment.
Zack was born 14 years ago with spinal muscular atrophy, a genetic disease that drastically restricts muscle development and coordination. But through the long and arduous process, and with daily assistance from his parents and four siblings, Zack is able to do wonders for a 14-year-old boy using a wheelchair.
When his older brother Kyle began to play for the Jets in the Gowanda youth football league several years ago, Zack followed along and was the team's designated ball boy. The next season, when Zack had turned 8 and was old enough to register for the pee wee team, the Jets listed him on their roster as a player and gave him jersey No. 1. He came to practice each night and to every game on the weekends to help support his team in any way possible.
When each Jet player was introduced before the games, Zack's name would be the first one announced over the public address system. Strapped tightly to his motorized wheelchair, he would ascend from beneath the goal post and onto the field just like the rest of the players. Zack would then join his teammates on the sidelines, regardless of the weather, to cheer them on to victory. That process would repeat itself for the next six seasons.
This past fall, Gowanda moved into the OATKA football/cheerleading league. Zack was too old to be considered a player and wear the team jersey. So the Gowanda powers that be allowed Zack the opportunity to become an assistant coach. He attended each practice session and all of the team's 10 games.
But the idea of having him score a touchdown in his wheelchair to officially end the 2011 season came from his mother, Debbie. She had recently viewed a similar scenario on television of a high school football player in Ohio who had scored a touchdown from his wheelchair. Why couldn't that same special moment be arranged for her own son?
After conferring with league coaches and officials, the plan was put into motion. After eight consecutive seasons of watching boys his age celebrate their own touchdowns, Zack would finally be able to experience that same sense of pride by carrying the ball over the goal line and into the end zone with players on the field, fans in the bleachers and the stadium lights shining brightly above.
The game ball used to score that touchdown will forever be Zack's. And so, too, will the memory of that special moment for those who were there to witness it.
Mark Benton, of Gowanda, is an adjunct professor and field supervisor at Medaille College in Buffalo.