Little Rock Air Force Base's collection of feature articles

Feature Search


Football player's actions speak louder than words

  • Published
  • By Bob Oldham
  • 19th Airlift Wing Public Affairs
Standing on the sidelines at 6 feet 1 inch and weighing 260 pounds, he could be one of the most highly recruited football players in the nation. To say he's special is an understatement. But he didn't play a down for the 0-10 North Pulaski Falcons this year.

Jonathon Ruyters stood by all season, dressed in his gear, helmet in hand, ready to play. He was always pacing the sidelines, watching intently during close games and sometimes losing interest in lopsided losses. But he was there. And that's a testament to the school's coaching staff, his parents and Jonathon himself -- because Jonathon is autistic.

"It's a good team," Jonathon said.

While the quote might not seem to say a lot, it's significant for Jonathon because autism strikes at one's ability to communicate effectively. Autism is a developmental disorder that appears in the first three years of life, and affects the brain's normal development of social and communication skills, according to the National Library of Medicine.

He's one of 560 special-needs family members associated with the base, according to Connie Oxford, the 19th Medical Group's Exceptional Family Member Program manager.

While he might have diminished communication skills compared to the average 17 year old, that doesn't stop the excitement he feels when Fridays roll around and it's time for football, his dad, Tech. Sgt. James Clay, said.

Monday through Thursday, Jonathon can be a bear to get out of bed and get to school. Motivation is the key. If the day's classroom activities don't interest him, it can be a challenge, Clay said. But on Friday, Jonathon is up and ready to go. Where it can be challenging any other day of the week, each Friday during football season is a welcome relief for the Clay family.

And Jonathon embraces Fridays. He's out of bed, dressed in his game day jersey, sporting his No. 74 proudly.

"Overall, it's a good experience for him," Clay said. "He's having a good time."

It's a good experience for the team, too, Jonathon's coach, Teodis Ingram, said.

"All coaches who have students with disabilities should let kids play," the coach said, pointing out that there's more to life than wins and losses.

On a team that's often undersized on the field, "Jonathon is probably one of our biggest linemen," Ingram said.

While he didn't play this year, Falcon fans can expect to see Jonathon take some snaps on the field next season.

"I want to get him into a game," the coach said optimistically. "We're going to make that happen."

The coach said he puts himself in parents' shoes when it comes to being inclusive versus exclusive on the playing field, especially when the child comes from a military family. "For all they do for us, our freedoms, it's the least I can do."

Next summer's off-season work will be key, because no one on the coaching staff wants Jonathon to get hurt. Safety is priority No. 1.

The same effort the coaching staff sports appears in the classroom, as well.

"The teaching staff is great. I don't have any complaints about who we have there [to support Jonathon]," Clay said.

Like any parent, the Clays just want Jonathon to be treated as normally as possible.

On game day, "he's very proud of being able to wear that jersey," Clay said.

During the rest of the week, what's going on day to day in classroom activities dictates if Jonathon wants to go to school at all.

"Friday mornings, I don't think it matters to him what the heck they do at all that day, as long as he gets to put on his jersey and go to school, he's happy," his dad said.

On the sideline, Jonathon's got special people he looks for, two teachers and a friend's mom. It seems to give him a feeling of commonality, his dad said.

"I want him to feel a part of something," his dad said. "Win lose or draw, he's there. He's part of the group. He just wants to fit in."

Jonathon's probably the Falcons No. 1 football fan. No other fan has access to the locker room, gets to wear a uniform or stand on the sideline -- even closer than the cheerleaders.

And Jonathon agrees. "Yeah."