The rain clouds that have lingered over the area much of the summer finally had lifted, and the late afternoon sun, along with the promise of a new football season, was energizing Hixson High School's players.
As more than 70 teenage boys worked through various drills, the thud of pads crashing and the chirp of a coach's whistle were prevalent for the first few minutes of practice.
Just then, after the authoritative yell of head coach Jason Fitzgerald boomed instruction, another voice could be heard giving encouragement.
Austin Clark, a 4-foot-2, 135-pound freshman lineman, and the heart and soul of this year's Wildcats, adjusted his helmet and greeted each teammate who completed the tackling drill with a fist bump, a 1,000-watt smile and an endless supply of spunk.
"Come on! Let's go!" Clark yelled.
Nodding toward the diminutive player fidgeting with an oversized jersey, Fitzgerald smiled and said, "If every kid came to practice with the same attitude that Austin has every day, we wouldn't lose a game. That kid is what's right about high school football.
"He's why I love coaching at this level."
The fierce, knock-about setting of a football field is not a place you'd expect to find a child with Down syndrome. But Austin's parents never believed their son should be defined or limited by his life's obstacle.
And because of that, as another prep football season nears kickoff tonight, Austin embodies all the positives that can be gained through high school athletics.
"Seeing him out there, getting to be just like any other boy his age on that team, it means the world to him," said Austin's mother, Twonna. "As parents you want your child to get to have the same full experience as other kids.
"The other day he got back in the car after practice and was just covered in sweat and dirt. I was thinking how horrible that must feel, but he cranked up the radio and was just as happy as could be telling me about practice with a big smile on his face."
It was more than a week after the birth of their second son before Tony and Twonna Clark were informed by doctors that Austin had Down syndrome. Before the sting of reality had fully set in, the Clarks were given a list of limitations and things that Austin would never be able to do.
"When we first found out, we weren't sure what to expect," Twonna said. "Neither of us had any experience with a special-needs child, so we didn't know what to do. But once we started being told by experts what our son wouldn't get to do, we decided then that aside from his medical needs, we weren't going to go by the book on how to raise him. We were going to let him try as many things as he wanted and see what happened.
"Rather than giving him limitations, we would let Austin decide what he was capable of."
With help from the staff at Siskin Children's Institute, which Austin attended from the time he was 8 weeks old until he was 7, his determination and outgoing personality endeared him to anyone he met.
"When Austin was only about 4 years old, I remember there being another kid at Siskin who was wheelchair-bound," Tony said. "This other baby was on the mat with the physical therapist, who was trying to work with his legs, and without anybody saying anything to Austin he got down on the mat with that other little boy and started talking to him in a real soft voice. He was encouraging him to move his legs and try to walk.
"It's the same way when he plays sports. He's always encouraging others. Austin pushes people to do what he can't."
Watching his older brother Hayden, who was an all-star baseball and football player from Little League through his prep career at Soddy-Daisy, helped Austin develop a love of sports. He began playing baseball when he was only 3, and for his last two years at Loftis Middle School he wrestled and played football.
Last spring he told his parents that he intended to continue playing both sports at Hixson High.
"He came out to be a high school football player, no special treatment," Fitzgerald said. "He runs our sprints, does our drills and works out with the team.
"Football has become such a business and people get too caught up in who's going to get a scholarship or win a state championship. Those things are great, but high school football should be about coming together and making memories with friends and learning lessons about life.
"That's what makes this so special," Fitzgerald said, "seeing the kids come together and how they interact with Austin and how he lights up around them and makes them light up, too."
The transition to high school, when social standing and simply being accepted by peers often determines lasting self-esteem, can be stressful for any teenager, let alone one with special needs. The anxiety can weigh on parents, as well.
"It's a scary time for any child, but with a special-needs child you worry even more, because other kids typically shy away from kids who are different because they don't know how to act around them," Twonna said. "But since day one of football, it's been amazing. Now he has a new group of friends before school even started."
The same tug Twonna felt at her heartstrings each time she let Austin out for practice also led her husband to take matters into his own hands. Like any protective father, Tony drove to the Wildcats' practice field one afternoon, found an inconspicuous place to park where he wouldn't be spotted, and monitored how the other players interacted with his son.
"Your biggest fear is that you can't stand to see people make fun of him," Tony said. "And we've experienced that. Twice when he was younger, I remember seeing him get picked on verbally, and that was very hard because you want to rush in and protect him but you have to let it happen and see how he would respond.
"As a dad, I just wanted to make sure he was safe and see how the other kids treated him. All of a sudden this big kid comes over and stands next to Austin and puts his arm around him and they're both smiling and talking. I have to admit I got choked up. I had tears coming down my face just sitting there watching my son laughing and talking with one of his teammates.
"Nobody had told that kid to come over and talk to Austin. He just did it on his own. If you want to see how humanity is still alive and well in places, just watch how these kids on the team interact with Austin."
More than teammates
Isaiah Robinson, a 6-foot, 180-pound senior running back and outside linebacker, is one of the most talented and toughest players on the Wildcats, a team that has high hopes for a potential district title run. But when he talks about football, Robinson deflects his own abilities and describes himself only as "Austin's teammate."
The middle child of five brothers and sisters, with no previous experience interacting with special-needs kids, Robinson first noticed Austin at one of the team's early weightlifting sessions. Watching Austin go through all the same workouts, Robinson saw a kid who wanted nothing more than to be a part of the same team.
"There's just something about his personality that draws you to Austin," Robinson said. "He's always positive, always laughing and joking, pushing the rest of us to do our best. We had music blaring in the locker room the other day and some of us were dancing. I looked over and saw Austin over near his locker dancing, too. And he's got some moves. You don't have a choice but to be in a good mood around him.
"I was feeling tired and kind of sorry for myself the other day because we were having a tough practice. But I looked over and saw him lining up and running his sprints just like the rest of us, only when he crossed the line he still had that big ol' smile and wasn't complaining or groaning. That snapped me out of feeling sorry for myself real quick.
"I recognize he has his obstacles and there are differences, but after getting to know him, I just see him as my friend Austin now."
Besides the early identity being on the football team has given him, Austin's adjustment to high school should be helped by having his older brother walking the same halls as a first-year teacher at Hixson.
Austin rides to school with his brother each morning, and Hayden is an assistant teacher in Hixson's Comprehensive Development Classroom. But the two are separated in the afternoons when Austin goes to practice and Hayden leaves to work as an assistant coach at Red Bank.
"We have some trash talk on our morning drive in to school," Hayden said with a laugh. "He keeps telling me how Hixson is going to kick Red Bank's butt, and we get pretty competitive.
"God blessed me with a lot of things, but having Austin as my brother is at the top of the list," Hayden said. "The day my brother was born I knew what I wanted to do with the rest of my life. I wanted to reach out to kids with special needs.
"I'm sure his teammates see someone with a disability, one with barriers as far as speech sometimes and physical limitations, but they also see a kid with the same goal as them -- to make it through practice and get to Friday nights."
Contact Stephen Hargis at firstname.lastname@example.org or 423-757-6293.
Stephen has covered local sports in the tri-state area for more than 23 years, having been with the Times Free Press since its inception, and has been an assistant sports editor since 2005. Stephen is among the most decorated writers in the TFP’s newsroom, winning numerous state, regional and national writing awards, including nine in the last two years. He was named one of the top 10 sports writers in the nation at the Associated ...
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