Amy Donaldson: Thanks to the support of teammates, disabilities don't stop Riverton kicker

Published: Sunday, Oct. 6 2013 11:25 p.m. MDT

Riverton High School football players visit special needs students at The Kauri Sue Hamilton School in Riverton Wednesday, Sept. 19, 2012. The players sang their fight song and gave out football T-shirts for the students to wear every Friday in support of the team.

Jeffrey D. Allred, Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

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RIVERTON — As the ball sailed through the uprights, the sideline erupted in the kind of celebration that usually accompanies a game-winner.

And maybe, depending on how one defines the game, it was exactly that.

Cody Taylor was the player who kicked the 71st point of Riverton’s 71-50 victory against Lehi on Friday night. It was a brief moment in a very eventful two hours, but it was magical for Taylor and the boys who cheered and slapped the pads of the 5-foot-5, 115-pound junior.

“It was exhilaration,” he said of making the first extra point of his prep career. “It was an adrenaline rush. I was happy it went in, and I was grateful for the support my team gave me. I was grateful that I received the opportunity to try.”

That’s really all Taylor has ever asked for — an opportunity to try.

Doubts about what he could or couldn’t do, whether he would or wouldn’t live, and what kind of life he may or may not enjoy began even before he was born 17 years ago next week.

“In my very first ultrasound we found out there were problems of some kind,” said Amy Taylor, Cody’s mom. “The tech was quiet, doesn’t say a whole lot, and we’d been through this three other times, so we knew there was something wrong.”

Amy and her husband James convinced the tech to tell them what she thought she’d seen on that computer screen.

“She said, ‘It looks like he has club feet,'” Amy said. “I’d worked for a pediatrician. I knew that could be corrected with surgery.”

But that wasn’t the only problem, doctors later told the couple. It appeared, after meeting with researchers at the University of Utah, that Cody also had club hands and arthrogryposis, a rare non-progressive muscle disorder causing stiff or immobile joints. It can affect internal organs, causing breathing problems, feeding problems, speech disorders and in some cases mental disabilities.

That revelation began an emotional roller coaster in which doctors were alternately bleak and optimistic. Throughout the remaining six months, Amy and James simply dealt with each blow and each glimmer of hope as best they could.

“They weren’t sure he (would) make it through the pregnancy,” Amy Taylor said. “And then they thought, 'If he makes it, he might not live very long.' ... That first day, of course, you’re devastated. You’re not expecting something like that. But we have a wonderful support system and our faith, and we just felt very blessed that everything was going to be fine.”

Throughout the monthly ultrasounds and agonizing predictions, Amy held on to what it would be like when she met her youngest child.

“I thought, ‘I just can’t wait to hold him, and look at him, and we’ll just go from there,'” she said.

Cody’s situation became more complicated when, at age 4, doctors discovered that he also had a congenital heart defect. He has a bicuspid aortic valve, when a normal aortic valve is tricuspid. His doctors have always had some restrictions on his activities, especially forbidding him from playing any kind of contact sport.

For some people that would be the end of it. A life-threatening health problem is certainly good reason to see a dead end.

But Cody doesn’t see dead ends. Detours, maybe. In fact, the teen has become an expert at figuring out ways to accomplish what most people don’t think he should even attempt.

“I’ve always loved football,” said Cody. “Of course, there have been limitations for me. Sometimes I had to stop what I was doing, look for a different way. Sometimes there was no way to figure it out, so then we just move on.”

The doctors said no contact, so he asked if he could be a kicker for the team.

“It took a lot of begging and pleading,” Cody admits. But after convincing his very protective mom, his very cautious doctor, he simply had to win over Riverton head coach Mike Miller, who’d invited him to be a manager for the team his freshman year.

Miller said he had reservations, but felt coaches and his teammates would make sure football for him would be a non-contact sport. They’ve found a number of ways to put Cody in the game, and so far, his coach’s strategy and his teammates have protected him from harm.

“I also have a hard time believing there would be a football kid in this state that would take a cheap shot at him,” said Miller.

Amy Taylor admits the idea of Cody playing football still “kind of freaks me out. But he’s always loved sports, from the time he was teeny tiny. It’s hard as a parent to watch, besides the other physical limitations, that there are things he couldn’t do.”

Cody played soccer and flag football and he found acceptance and success. So he kept finding ways to play the games he loves. He said his body may have betrayed him in some ways, but he does have fairly strong legs.

“I’ve always had stronger legs,” said Cody. “I’ve always been able to kick a ball pretty decent. For the most part, I’ve been able to do whatever I want to do.”

His attitude might be his most valuable contribution to the Silverwolves football program.

“Originally, I think (the players) thought about (Cody’s disability) a little bit, but now I don’t think they even see it,” Miller said. “I think he just adds an element of fun. The kids love him to death. He works as hard, if not harder, than any of them. If there is something he can’t do, he modifies it.” Miller said he’s “never, ever, ever, ever” heard Cody say he can’t do something.

That’s because Cody doesn’t see life in terms of what he can and can’t do. He sees what he wants to do, and then he goes about trying to find his way of getting it done.

His teammates help him with his helmet, his shoulder pads and anything else he might otherwise struggle with — most of the time without being asked. Senior kicker Brady Slack works with Cody every day at practice, analyzing his technique, offering him advice.

“He’s a great kicker and a great role model,” Cody said of Slack.

The senior said it’s Cody who is the great role model. “It’s been great to work with him,” said Slack, who didn’t start playing football until his sophomore year. “He’s pretty inspiring. I don’t see him as having any physical limitations. ... I don’t think, ‘I can’t do that,’ is in his vocabulary.”

Cody believes football has made him a better person.

“Being involved in football gives me a greater love for school,” he said. “I have friends, relationships that I don’t know if they’d be there if I wasn’t part of the program. I would probably find other things to do outside of school with my family, but it wouldn’t have me as involved as football does. I found a way to adapt and make it work, and it’s just fun. Anyway, it’s not about me. It’s about the team.”

Cody is right. That post-kick celebration was as much about the gifts of a generous team as it was about the accomplishment of one determined player.

“I was pretty nervous, and then we had to call a timeout,” he said. “That actually helped me. I was able to talk to Coach Miller and he told me I could do it. The other players were like, ‘Don’t worry about the other team. We’ve got your back.’ ... The first thing I heard was the whole sideline erupting, and that was pretty awesome.”

Twitter: adonsports

Email: adonaldson@deseretnews.com

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