Gage Dannecker, 11, of Allentown, Pa., had been asking his mom for about three years to play youth football after listening time and again how much fun his friends were having playing the sport.
This year, after all the begging and pleading, his mom, Melissa Hein, finally said yes.
Hein’s decision to let Gage play football only fueled his passion to be on the gridiron – you can see it when he chases ball-carriers from sideline to sideline, and you can hear it in his voice when he talks about what he loves most about putting on the pads for the Lehigh County Youth Association Bulldogs.
“My favorite position on the football team is nose tackle,” Gage said. “When you’re in that position on defense, you’re able to chase and tackle the guy with the ball.”
He enjoys shedding blocks and making plays. But unlike other youth football players across the nation, Gage is presented with another challenge on every snap.
He is blind.
“There are no words to describe how proud I am of my son,” Hein said. “He’s overcome a lot of challenges in life, and watching him play football is incredible.
“Gage just has a desire to be like everybody else.”
Hein was concerned about letting her son play football because of the possibility of injury. Any type of head injury could cause additional trauma to the limited vision that Gage has – he only has light perception.
As the year has gone by, Hein’s confidence has grown watching Gage play football because it is clear to her how beneficial the game is for her son.
“I think it’s a great asset to him, both physically and socially,” Hein said. “He’s lost 17 pounds since the beginning of the year, which is great, and it gives him an opportunity to be exposed to more children in the area and more children to be exposed to visually impaired students.”
Michael Rhodes, coach of the Bulldogs, was a little hesitant about letting Gage play because he wasn’t sure about Gage’s limitations on the field.
As a 15-year coaching veteran at LCYA, Rhodes has seen similar situations. He continually urges kids who suffer from disabilities to go to area youth organizations to play.
Rhodes has coached players with epilepsy, Down syndrome and had kids on ADD medications, but never had he coached a player that couldn’t see.
It didn’t take long for Gage to show how coachable he is. Rhodes was convinced if he could teach Gage to play football, he should be able to coach any player who is willing to learn.
Not only did Gage change coach Rhodes’ perspective, but by showing dedication and great effort in practice every day, he changed his teammates’ as well.
“The other kids were a little apprehensive, like, ‘Really? He can’t even see me,’” Rhodes said. “But as he was blocking them off, shedding their blocks and getting to where he needed to be, they learned along the way that he was here to stay and wasn’t just some stunt to throw a kid in a uniform and see if he would be able to stand on the sideline.
“The biggest key is Gage wanted to learn how to play football, and the kids realized that if this guy can do it, then there is no reason they can’t use the same effort and try to achieve the same goals as Gage.”
Since his favorite position is nose tackle, one of Gage’s goals is to be a main contributor along the defensive line, but how does he find the runner during the game?
“I listen to the person with the ball, because I can hear them breathing, and I can hear footsteps,” Gage said.
“It was amazing to watch how close he would actually get,” Rhodes said. “He would get within an arms-length of the guy and would always be in the vicinity we needed him to be.”
For the 2012 season, Gage recorded four tackles.
Gage’s presence on the team has helped the players gain an understanding of what it means to be a teammate and a leader, and because of the experience, the Bulldogs grew closer together.
These life lessons are something Gage and his teammates can take with them – all because Hein signed her son up to play football.
“I work really hard,” Gage said. “I am really proud because I am able to achieve so many things now, and this shows you can do anything if you put your mind to it.”
Gage is set on continuing to play football next year, but he’ll have to move up a weight class to do so – just like everybody else.
And Gage and his family wouldn’t want it any other way.