SALEM — Over the years, Jill Wilson has heard a lot of shocking things from her son, Sabin, but nothing could have prepared her for what came tumbling out of his mouth last spring:
“Mom, I want to go out for the football team.”
She recalls that moment with perfect clarity because Sabin is a kid who hardly ever left the house, never made new friends and was perfectly content to play video games all night and day, rarely leaving the couch. He hated school and the routine that went with it.
Things finally escalated to the point that Jill had to cancel Sabin's first-period class altogether because of his refusal to get out of bed. So when he declared his desire to play on the football team — something he hadn't done before — she couldn’t have been more surprised.
As much as the logistical aspects of Sabin playing a team sport worried her, such as the daily routine and rigorous schedules, there was another aspect of his intent to play that flat-out confused her.
Doctors told Jill that due to her adopted son condition known as Asperger’s Syndrome, he would “probably never play organized sports because he would not understand the competition aspect," she recounted.
Well, that’s news to Sabin. It’s very evident in his rapid rise through the JV ranks of the Salem Hills Skyhawk football that he understands competition just fine. He's understanding it so much so, in fact, that he starts on the junior varsity squad and, according to Salem Hills head coach Joel Higginson, Sabin is competing for a spot on varsity.
Pretty remarkable considering it’s been just five short months of playing a game he’s never known with kids he’d never spoken to before last summer.
To look at him, it’s plain to see Sabin has an athletic body with a strong physique and is brimming with potential. While that definitely works in his favor in the athletic arena, it belies years of tremendous internal struggles that have all but paralyzed him for most of his young life, making his recent transformation nothing short of miraculous.
“All I can say is that since Sabin became a member this football team, he has been a new man,“ Jill said. “Every day he continues to blossom and unfold in ways we never thought possible. He’s doing, saying and feeling things we were told he never would.”
Things that come easy to most people, such as making new friends, remembering dates, details and schedules, and even going on a date to the homecoming dance have all happened for the first time in Sabin’s life since he found football. The boys on the team have rallied around and befriended him in ways that continue to humble and astonish his grateful mother.
Fondly, she recalls picking him up from summer two-a-day practices. One of the players said goodbye to Sabin and that he would see him later that night. Jill asked Sabin who the kid was and to Jill’s utter shock he said, “Oh, that’s my new friend, Ammon.”
“Realize,” said Jill, “that’s the first time Sabin had ever labeled another kid as his new friend.”
Along with making new friends, he is also getting out of bed every morning, which is another first.
According to Jill, Sabin is quite adamant about being to the gym by 6 a.m. for his daily weightlifting workouts with his new-found football buddies. Mom couldn’t be happier about it.
“This team has saved my son. For that, I would gladly pick up that big strapping boy of mine, throw him over my shoulder and walk the three miles from our house to the school every morning — in my nightgown — if I had to, just for him to be a part of this team that he has come to love," Jill said.
That’s what grateful mothers do.
Along with the gratitude, Jill also has a new-found hope for her son’s future.
For most of his 16 years of life, Sabin has been going to myriad doctors, counselors and therapists, all trying to help him deal with his debilitating diagnoses. In addition to Asperger’s Syndrome, Sabin also suffers with bipolar disorder and depression. Just one of those conditions can be debilitating, but all three simultaneously can be deadly.
Jill remembers well the day she was reading a book about these conditions in adolescents. Toward the end of the book she read the life expectancy for kids with these particular diagnoses is around 19 years because suicide is a very common outcome.
She could see her son spiraling further down into depression with the passage of each year, but she felt helpless to do anything about it.
In addition to the high rate of suicide and depression that comes with Sabin’s condition, doctors also told Jill that due to the Asperger’s, her son would not have the ability to feel or express emotion — at least not in normal ways.
It turns out that the doctors were right about that one. Well, until football came along that is.
Now he is known, both on and off the field, as the kid who is all smiles and hard work.
“Sabin’s been a tremendous asset to the team this year,” said Salem Hills assistant coach Chauncy Thornton. “He’s not only a great kid, but he works hard, does anything we ask and is grasping the game of football. He’s also got a nose for the ball and you can’t teach a kid that.”
As for the changes he’s seen in Sabin from the beginning of the season until now, Thornton said, “The other players have embraced him and are always talking him up and giving him encouragement. That has given him a lot of confidence and now he’s encouraging others, he’s very talkative and always smiling. He’s a new kid.”
Sabin has a lot to smile about these days. He gets to spend a couple of hours every day with a slew of new friends doing what he loves best about football.
“Tackling. That is my favorite part,” said Sabin through a big toothy grin. “It feels great to get in there and tackle people. Also, I love that I have made a bunch of new friends, too.”
That’s ironic because, as he tells the story, it was his old friends (the one or two that he had) who were the reason he went out for the team in the first place. According to him, he grew tired of them saying he “could never make the football team.” So, he decided to go out and show them just how wrong they were.
Fast-forward five months. Sabin, now a junior, is down on the sidelines fist-bumping and chest-thumping with the best of them — something Jill never thought she’d see. That is why she sat on the bleachers in a recent game between fierce rivals Salem Hills and Springville and wept at the miracle she witnessed on the field.
Just a dozen yards from where she sat, the Skyhawks staged one of the most thrilling-to-watch comebacks in recent history. By all accounts, it was nothing short of miraculous.
Down 27-0 at halftime, Salem Hills went into the locker room as one team and emerged as another. Whatever was said in those scant few minutes may never be known, but the effect may not soon be forgotten by those who witnessed the dramatic transformation of a team that spent the whole first half playing listless, scared and tentative, and then playing the second half confident, smart and inspired.
The Skyhawks, clearly overwhelmed by Springville’s first-half dominance, played as though they were 1-6 instead of 6-1. Nothing went their way the first half and they didn’t seem to care.
Though their record matched Springville’s at 6-1, the Skyhawks were very much the underdog. Salem Hills had never beaten nemesis Springville.
Then came the second half.
The Skyhawks clawed their way to victory by rattling off 35 unanswered points and showed just what they’re made of and why they are now 7-1.
The Skyhawks did all the great things that amazing teams do: cause and recover fumbles, make gutsy defensive stops, grab interceptions and turn them into touchdowns, make jaw-dropping catches on textbook throws, inspire each other and whip the crowd into a frenzied mob of believers.
For Jill, however, the most miraculous part of the game was not found in the stunning 35-27 finish or the spectacular plays that led to it. The real miracle was found in the emotional reactions of her son to it all. Sabin didn't catch a single pass, make one tackle or take one snap. In fact, he didn't play a single down. Nevertheless, he exploded with joy with his teammates.
That was the real miracle. That was the reason for her tears.
As for the deep love Sabin has developed for his new friends? Apparently it goes both ways. The Skyhawk football team is not afraid to show it in big, public, life-changing ways.
That was very evident when the bus full of jubilant Skyhawks pulled out of Springville’s parking lot that night and the victory chants began in earnest.
First it was “Vegas! Vegas!” for Jordan Taylor, who had two interceptions, including a pick-six deep in the fourth quarter to seal the deal.
Then the chanting turned into “Coach! Coach!” for Higginson, who sources say gave an unforgettable halftime speech about not giving up.
Finally, all eyes turned to Wilson and with a deafening roar, 48 voices spontaneously erupted in one last chant, “Sabin! Sabin! Sabin!”
That’s what true friends do.
Amberli Nelson contributes coverage of Salem Hills sports through Deseret Connect. Monica Gibb contributes photography of Salem Hills sports through Deseret Connect.
Copyright 2016, Deseret News Publishing Company