An autistic 14-year-old football player who was bullied the previous week scored the first touchdown of his life. And perhaps everyone who witnessed the emotional scene went home feeling like a winner.
During the game Monday night at Garrett-Harrison Stadium in Phenix City, Central Freshman Academy cornerback Sean Campbell stripped the ball from compassionate and cooperative Brookstone School freshman running back MJ Scott, who might have been the first player in history not connected to gamblers to voluntarily fumble. Escorted by teammates and cheered by even his opponents, Sean ran unimpeded 65 yards for the score.
“It felt good,” Sean said.
Also making him feel good was getting to pose for a photo with some cheerleaders after his touchdown.
“It’s really cool,” he said.
‘They have his back’
Sean’s mother, Tameka Campbell, said a boy at school started “slap boxing” her son and “shoved him down a few times” while another boy recorded video of the incident. Neither of the bullies is on the football team, she said.
Campbell is grateful for the caring way the Central family dealt with the bullying.
“The administration took care of it immediately,” she said, adding that the punishment wasn’t disclosed, “and the football team came to his defense and told him they have his back.”
Central coach Larry Knox had been trying to find a way to reward Sean for his hard work.
“He doesn’t miss a practice,” Knox said. “He always gives 110 percent. He’s always encouraging other players and coaches. … He’s always there for us, and we wanted him to know we are there for him.”
After the bullying incident, Knox figured he had the appropriate moment; he just needed the appropriate opponent.
Knox’s sister, Carol Rogers, happens to be the bookkeeper at Brookstone, which was next on Central’s scheduled. She told him that Brookstone junior varsity coach Hunter Chapman is “an outstanding man and no doubt would love to participate,” Knox recalled.
“It was just God’s timing, putting the pieces together,” Knox said. “It was the right game, the right time, the right moment, the right everything.”
After exchanging emails, the coaches agreed on a secret plan. They divulged it to only the game’s officials, who approved the untimed and unofficial play.
The final piece was ensuring Sean’s parents would attend the game. They usually do, but Knox didn’t want to leave the possibility that they would miss it, and he didn’t want to spoil the surprise.
“I kept hinting that they really need to be there,” he said.
‘So fired up’
With its first possession of the final quarter, Brookstone was about to turn over the ball on downs, but the referee allowed this unusual timeout. That’s when Knox and Chapman huddled with their teams and shared the secret.
“You could see their eyes get real big,” Knox said of his Red Devils. “They got all excited.”
In this game that Brookstone lost 28-0, Chapman said, “Our guys were fighting hard and worn out, but as soon as I told them about this plan, they lit up.”
He told them about Sean being bullied. He told them about Sean’s positive attitude. He told them about their chance to help make a marvelous memory for someone who deserves it.
“My guys were so fired up,” Chapman said. “They realized they could be part of something special.”
MJ soaked up every word. Having a cousin with autism, he knew how much this gift would mean to Sean, and he felt compelled to guarantee the play would be executed well. So he urged Chapman to choose him as the running back to take the toss from the quarterback and let Sean become a football star.
“It was something I wanted to be a part of,” said MJ, 15. “It’s just a good feeling to have, a good memory to have for the rest of your life.”
And he and Sean wear the same number, 17, so “it was kind of meant to be,” MJ said.
After the ball was snapped at the Central 30-yard line, every player except Sean moved at a jogging pace. Sean zoomed in from his cornerback position, hit MJ 2 yards behind the line of scrimmage, “drove” him back 3 more yards and “stripped” the ball from him.
Sean cradled the ball and dashed down the right hash marks. Central freshman defensive back Michael Harris was on the sideline, running along with Sean. Michael recalled, “All I could hear was everyone screaming, ‘Go, Sean!’ ”
Nobody got in Sean’s way until he crossed the goal line. MJ, equally exuberant, followed the Red Devil entourage in the sprint into the end zone and was the first Cougar to greet him.
MJ told Sean, “You’re the best, man.”
Both benches emptied and formed a joyful mosh pit around the newly cast hero.
Michael, 15, lauded Brookstone’s reaction.
“They could have just sat there and watched us,” he said. “But they showed us how much they care about us and people like Sean.”
Michael heard Sean holler amid the frenzy, “I’m living a dream!”
‘Most awesome feeling’
Chapman called the high-fiving, helmet-slapping frenzy “a real bonder.” It also was overwhelming for some.
“I started to tear up,” Michael said.
“I had to put my play card in front of my face to catch my composure,” Knox said.
One of the Cougars asked Chapman to take him out of the game for the next few plays because he also has a cousin with autism and got too choked up.
Tears flowed among unsuspecting fans when they finally heard the play’s backstory. Knox recalled, “One of the parents came up to me and said, ‘You had everyone in the stands crying.’ ”
When the explanation reached MJ’s mother, Shemal Scott, she gushed with pride for her son’s involvement.
“It meant the world to me,” she said. “It was more than football, more than a game. It was life. It’s what really matters. … My husband and I do the best we can to raise our children in a Christian-based family, to put that love of Jesus Christ into action, so it was great to see.”
Watching her son score, Campbell said, “It was just the most awesome feeling I’ve had as a parent.”
The fact the play’s result was predetermined doesn’t diminish its wonderful impact on Sean, she said.
“He thinks he’s the next Deion Sanders,” she said with a laugh. “He feels it was authentic. That’s what makes it special.”
‘Compassionate and extraordinary’
Knox noted the postgame handshakes with the opponents weren’t the usual perfunctory exchanges. “This night was different … like we were shaking hands with our brothers,” he said.
The Central coach praised Brookstone for willingly and genuinely participating in this gracious gesture.
“They couldn’t have done it any better,” Knox said. “I can’t thank Brookstone and Coach Chapman and his players enough. You would have thought Sean was part of their team.”
In a way, Chapman suggested, he is.
“At the end of the day, life is about people,” the Brookstone coach recalled telling his Cougars. “When you have an opportunity to make someone feel loved and celebrated, I hope you adopt that in your daily lives.”
Chapman thanked Knox for creating such a teachable moment.
“I’ve got a lot of respect for him,” Chapman said. “Coach Knox gets the credit for making this happen.”
Michael also thanked his coach.
“This was a true blessing,” he said. “Coach Knox gave us the opportunity to show the true meaning of friends.”
Knox emphasized this story is a prime example of what coaches do as educators.
“We preach character to our kids every day,” he said. “That’s the No. 1 focus. … This was a great way to bring all of that to light for them.”
The message has been well received, Michael said. The special play, he said, “showed us that the game of football isn’t just about competition. It’s about having fun.”
Campbell appreciates everyone who helped Sean bounce back — from being bullied to being beloved.
“The coaching and administrative staff at Central has gone above and beyond by doing this for him,” she said. “The players from both teams are compassionate and extraordinary young men, and I wish nothing but the best for them in the future.”
On the Brookstone team’s video, as the strange yet inspiring play develops, somebody says, “They’re doing something. They’re doing something special. We’ll find out.”
And the public address announcer declares, “Sean Campbell with the strip and the score! Touchdown Red Devils!”