New York State Education Commissioner MaryEllen Elia ruled Thursday afternoon that an autistic fifth-year Orchard Park High School senior who was ruled ineligible for football should be allowed to play on his team while his appeal is processed.
The ruling came just in the nick of time for 18-year-old Jacob Kohler.
His team plays its season-opener Friday night at home against Pittsford Mendon.
Now Kohler may take the field.
Kohler’s family was notified as Kohler was leaving his football practice that Elia had granted a stay in the case, allowing him to participate.
“He was doing verbal cartwheels,” Scott Kohler said of his son. “It’s absolutely amazing. He was incredibly happy.”
“He was in the car coming home. He got out of the car and ran back into the fieldhouse to tell his teammates,” Scott Kohler said.
The appeal by Kohler, who was diagnosed with autism as a child and needs a fifth year to graduate, has attracted attention across the state.
State Sen. Tim Kennedy, D-Buffalo, wrote to Elia on Kohler’s behalf and his office created#LetJacobPlay petition on change.org to increase the pressure on the state to let Kohler play. More than 2,300 people signed the petition in less than a week.
Kohler had been ruled ineligible to play by Section VI, which governs Western New York high school sports, because students have only four years of eligibility.
Kohler and Orchard Park appealed, saying that Kohler’s autism disability prevented him from being physically and mentally ready to play sports during his freshman year, and he should be given another year to compete.
New York issued a stay of the Section VI ruling against Kohler.
The appeal pointed out that Kohler – who stood only 4 feet 6 inches tall, and weighed 72 pounds when he started high school – suffered from high anxiety as a freshman due to his autism-related developmental delays. He had few friends and failed all but two of his freshman classes. Playing sports was not even a possibility for their son, Kohler’s parents said in the appeal.
But Kohler decided he wanted to play sports as a sophomore, and started working out with the football team and on his own at the YMCA. He played on the Orchard Park junior varsity football team as a junior and as a wide receiver on the varsity team last year.
“I love my teammates,” Kohler told The Buffalo News. “I love being around all my friends. It’s just so much fun.”
Kohler is not a star athlete. In past years, he’s only been sent onto the field at the end of games when the outcome has already been decided.
Elia could eventually rule against Kohler’s appeal. But appeals to the commissioner can take eight to 10 months to be decided, so football season may be over before a final decision is handed down.
Kohler was notified June 30 by Orchard Park’s athletic director that he was not eligible. The district asked Section VI on July 28 for a waiver to allow Kohler to play.
On Aug. 1, Section VI denied Kohler’s waiver request, saying Kohler had used up his eligibility because he had never been denied the opportunity to play sports during his first four years of high school.
Scott Kohler credited Kennedy and the Buffalo-area media, especially The Buffalo News, for telling the public about his son’s appeal, which increased the pressure on the state to rule on the stay request.
Coach Gene Tundo said Thursday evening that he had not been officially notified of the ruling. “I’ve heard there’s a stay, but I don’t know what a stay means,” he said. “If it means he can play,” he added, “that’s great for him and great for thousands of kids in the same situation.”
Tundo noted that Kohler “loves the game and he does his best. He’s a hard worker.”
Will he get to play against Pittsford Mendon?
“Hopefully, everybody will get a chance to play,” Tundo said.