When middle-school football player Sheridan Hedrick stopped and dropped to his knee just one yard shy of scoring a touchdown, his actions were met with exasperation from the parents in the stands. Only his teammates knew why he went down on purpose.
Like most middle and high schools across the United States, Olivet Middle School in Michigan has its own football team – the Eagles. And like any football team, two key attributes it looks for in players are speed and strength.
As an eighth-grader with a mental disability, the 95-pound Keith Orr did not possess either of those qualities. But his parents urged him to join the football team anyway, in the hope that it would help him learn how to function as part of a group.
Although Keith struggled to perform as well as the other boys and didn’t get much play time, coaches and teammates alike were impressed by his hard work. As the team’s quarterback Parker Smith said, “He tries his hardest, even though sometimes he might not be able to do stuff.”
And aside from working hard, Keith also brought his warm and positive personality to every game and practice. His teammates were so moved by his tenacity that they decided to create a special moment he would never forget.
The boys concocted a secret plan that nobody else knew about – not even their coaches. They plotted for weeks as to how they could best show Keith that, regardless of his abilities, he was still their friend and a valued part of their group.
That plan revolved around getting as close to the end zone as possible without actually scoring a touchdown. Next, they would hand Keith the ball and protect him so he could score the touchdown himself.
The boys enacted the plan – which they called the “Keith Special” — during one of their home games. When the Eagles’ running back Sheridan Hedrick broke away from the opposing team’s defenders, he purposely slid down on his knee just before the end zone.
While the team’s coaches were probably as confused – and frustrated – as the parents, the boys knew exactly what they were doing. As quarterback Parker Smith told CBS Evening News, “Us kids knew – hey, we got this – this is our time, this is Keith’s time.”
So the boys handed Keith the football and huddled around their teammate to make sure he could make the last few steps across the scoring line. Their plan worked out perfectly.
Team coach Tim Jungel said he’d never seen fans and players celebrate a touchdown with so much energy. It was a magical moment to behold.
When asked about how it felt, a smiling Keith simply replied, “Awesome!” Keith’s teammate Justice Miller perhaps put it best when he said, “Nothing can really explain getting a touchdown when you’ve never had one before.”
Keith’s parents, who were also watching from the stands, could barely believe what they witnessed. But after the awe of the moment dissipated, they quickly realized that the play was no fluke.
As Keith’s mother Carrie recalled, “That’s what gets to me. Not that my kid made a touchdown… these boys planned it. They wanted him to have a touchdown.” While she had once been worried that Keith might have trouble making friends at school, the touching moment emphatically proved otherwise.
Indeed, as Keith quickly discovered, being accepted by the football team meant that everyone else at school would want to be his friend as well. As his mom remarked, “Somebody’s always going to have his back from now until the day he graduates.”
The team’s football coach said he immediately noticed a difference in how the other players treated Keith. They now all eat lunch at the same table and hang out together in between classes.
But Keith wasn’t the only person affected by the experience. The team’s wide receiver Justice Miller could barely contain his emotion as he explained why seeing Keith score the touchdown was so powerful.
“He’s never been cool or popular, and he went from being pretty much a nobody to making everyone’s day,” the boy told CBS Evening News as he began to tear up. He revealed that the experience had made him appreciate the struggles of others, rather than only being concerned about himself and his circle of friends.
What makes the whole story so moving is not just the fact that football is a hugely competitive sport in which players want to win at almost any cost. It’s also the fact that the boys who came up with the idea were only 13 years old, and yet were still able to recognize and honor their friend in such a special way.
When asked whether he had any second thoughts about scoring the touchdown himself, running back Sheridan Hedrick replied, “Nope… I really wanted to get it for Keith.” The boys’ determination to put their teammate ahead of winning is a real inspiration – NFL stars, take note.