It started out like any other football game, but by the time the contest between West Seneca East and Frontier was over, parents, coaches and players had tears in their eyes with the knowledge that yes, there is more to football than scoring points.
This is the story of Nick Ramunno, a dogged 13-year-old from West Seneca determined to play football despite health and developmental delays.
When he was 18 months old, Nick was diagnosed with Kabuki Syndrome, a disorder caused by a gene mutation that can cause developmental delays and health problems. Then last August, he also was diagnosed with a liver disease, NASH, and he recently got a hearing aid.
“He’s been wanting to play football because his older brother plays football,” said his mother, Louise. “He wants to be just as big and bad as his older brothers.”
Nick had gotten into a couple of games during the season for a short stint at safety. He practiced hard, but wasn’t quick off the snap and didn’t run as fast as the other guys.
At first the coaches wouldn’t let him practice with full pads because they were concerned he would be injured.
Nick was crushed, but he kept going to practices, standing in the huddle and practicing stances. After he got stronger, he was able to practice with the pads.
“He never complained. He sat on the sidelines all the time. Just being on the team did so much for his psyche,” Louise Ramunno said.
A breast cancer survivor, she knows something about overcoming adversity. She’s not sure what the future holds for Nick, since his condition is extremely rare.
Before the last game, West Seneca East coach Jason Overton approached Frontier coach Jim Steffan, and told him the Trojans had a player who worked hard all season, and if it worked out, they’d like him to get a touchdown.
“Let’s do that,” Steffan replied, and he decided right then that “regardless of what the score was, we were going to make a point, at least on our sideline, to give this kid an opportunity.”
It was a competitive game, and the score was tied at 6 at halftime. But it was modified football with seventh and eighth graders, where anything can happen.
The Falcons went ahead in the second half, and were leading, 20-6, with about two minutes to go. Steffan called a timeout, signaled to Overton, and then told his players that Nick from the other team would get the ball, and was going to score a touchdown.
Meanwhile, Overton told Nick he was going in as running back.
“Our team was ecstatic to be able to do something for him,” Overton said. “They knew how hard he worked.”
Steffan called a second timeout to make sure all his substitutes knew the game plan.
“His players were great. They ran down. They made him work for it,” Overton said. “He had to run through people a little bit.”
No one in the stands knew what was going to happen, not even Nick’s mom, who started praying when she saw he had the ball, worried he might get tackled and hurt.
“He starts to run, and nobody was going to tackle him, they’re all running together,” she said. The crowd cheered and clapped as Nick ran the ball into the end zone. He raised an arm in triumph.
“It was a 75-yard touchdown,” his mother said.
There’s not much more a parent wants to see. The game took place on her birthday, Oct. 27.
As bad luck would have it, the battery on Frontier’s camera gave out before the game, but a West Seneca East fan taped the play and posted it to YouTube.
At the end of the game, Nick came up to his mother and showed her that the referee had given him the coin used in the coin toss. Frontier players also are signing a football for him as a memento of the day.
Overton knows a lot of kids play football and never get the chance to score. But Nick earned his chance through hard work, he said.
“I think he’ll play football the rest of his life. He’s dedicated and he wants to play,” Overton said.
There were many lessons learned that day.
“I think they know that football, it’s bigger than the game itself. The relationships they build will last a lifetime. A lot of what they go through … will last a lifetime,” Steffan said.
“They ran with him and supported him. It showed a lot of character,” said Allison Lippert, whose son plays for Frontier. “Everybody felt it.”
Frontier players, who were recognized by the School Board for their sportsmanship, said even if the score had been tied, they would have done the same thing.
“In the end, I’d rather make someone’s day,” said Frontier fullback Alan Beyer, who is in eighth grade.