After the Lambert feeder team’s games in the North Metro Football League, Jack Coggin gets the ball. As he lumbers ahead, his Longhorns teammates block for him and the opposition moves aside, clearing a path for Jack to score yet another touchdown.
The points don’t go on the scoreboard, and Jack’s exploits aren’t drawing the attention of Forsyth County’s middle school coaches, who will train the next crop of football players to populate the county’s high school teams. That doesn’t make the touchdowns any less meaningful for Jack and his team, though.
“It's a gift we'll look back on our whole lives,” said Rocky Coggin, Jack’s father.
Jack Coggin has cerebral palsy, a developmental disability affecting the parts of the brain that control movement. The left side of Jack’s body is most affected, and he has a slow, awkward gait and decreased hand-eye coordination. He would fall over regularly when he was younger, and he taught himself how to do so without getting hurt.
Neither Rocky Coggin nor Maggie, Jack’s mother, had experience with cerebral palsy before they had Jack. He developed slower than his older sister, and the Coggins eventually saw a pediatrician who diagnosed Jack with the disorder.
“We thought, ‘Okay … does it affect his lifespan?’” Maggie Coggin said. “Anything else, I can deal with, as long as it doesn’t affect his longevity. We can manage through the rest.”
Cerebral palsy can affect life expectancy in some cases, but Jack’s is a relatively mild one. He doesn’t need a wheelchair, and while he has an orthotic device he sometimes wears, he often goes without it. He’s had intensive therapy for his whole life and has undergone multiple surgeries.
And while Jack’s mobility and dexterity are both significantly less than that of the normal 12-year-old, he’s been involved in sports for much of his life, playing in United Futbol Academy’s TOPSoccer program and participating in the Special Olympics. He’s an avid viewer of ESPN and a fan of the Georgia Bulldogs, a sports nut who will watch whatever’s on.
But until last year, Jack had never played football. The idea to get him on the Longhorns came from Al Ferrer, the team’s head coach. Ferrer had gotten to know the Coggins from their daughters playing soccer together, and when he offered to find Jack a spot on the Longhorns’ feeder team, the Coggins accepted.
Jack has therapy multiple times per week, so the Coggins have carved out Monday as his day for football. During one practice at Sharon Springs Park, he joined the team to practice defending passes. His strategy for covering receivers consisted mainly of reaching for their facemasks, and the routes he ran were abbreviated, but Lambert’s players treated Jack like any other teammate, congratulating him and offering pointers.
At one point during practice, Jack headed to the sideline to play catch with his father, throwing tight spirals with his right hand. He also sat on the turf, resting with his helmet, but when the Longhorns ended the practice with sprints, Jack lined up alongside the team.
The Longhorns’ feeder program is a competitive environment, and Ferrer had seen the kind of entitlement and selfishness that pervades youth sports all over the country. That’s part of why he asked Jack to join the team – if everyone could see him fight to be like his peers, their outlook might change.
“I’ve had one parent say they were upset about their kid’s playing time, and after seeing Jack score and how happy he was, it kind of put things in perspective,” Ferrer said. “He takes nothing for granted – he works really hard and just loves being part of the team.”
There’s been no backlash from parents, no grumbling about lost reps, which has surprised and touched the Coggins.
“They take football and youth football serious in the South, so we didn’t want him to be a distraction or get in the way of what they were trying to do,” Maggie Coggin said. “But these boys, the coaches, the families, they’ll all cheer for (Jack) when he gets on the field. We knew after a while … how blessed we were with this group.”
Jack’s parents aren’t sure what he’ll do with football when he ages out of his current team. He could be the manager for a middle school or high school team, although his therapy sessions would conflict with after-school practices.
“Time will tell,” Maggie Coggin said. “We’ll kind of cross that bridge, like every other time, as you come to it.”
For now, though, Jack is playing football – which he calls his favorite sport – with his peers, and every game day, he gets to score a touchdown.
That can lift spirits on any day, even after a loss. Ferrer remembers a 3-0 Longhorns defeat last year. He gathered the players after the game and said they played well but should also focus on winning. Then Jack chimed in.
“(He) says, ‘Coach, we won the game!’” Ferrer recalled. “’I scored!’”