Walker Wedell may never play a down for the Sherman Bearcats, but that doesn’t mean the sophomore isn’t considered just as much a member of the football team as any starter.
Wedell, who was born with Down syndrome, attends practice each day. On game days, he suits up in full regalia just like the rest of the Bearcats, proudly sporting No. 33 on his jersey.
Sherman head coach J.D. Martinez said Wedell’s participation is beneficial not just to the Bearcat players, but to the football program overall.
“Having the opportunity to have Walker out let’s all of us realize that we’re very lucky and fortunate to be able to play this game,” Martinez said. “And we talk about it all the time. What can we do to give back? What can we do to help?
“When Walker showed up, he just wanted to to be part of it. We’re, like, very open arms. We realize this is a lot bigger than just us. If we can do something to help make his day, somebody else’s day, and it just takes a little bit of time on us, why wouldn’t you want to do that?”
Nicki Wedell, Walker’s mother, said the experience has been “just wonderful” for her son.
“It has meant so much how the coaches have embraced and supported this,” she said. “Not every coach would do that.”
Nicki Wedell said that she has seen significant progress from Walker through the first two months of the season.
“He’s like a totally different kid, being around ‘normal’ boys, and them accepting him and being part of it. The boys are so good with him. Walker goes to practice every day. He even argues with me on the days there’s not practice that he’s going to practice. When the other boys aren’t doing anything, they’re throwing the ball with him. They’re high-fiving him. He just feels a part of something, not excluded. I think he eats lunch with some of them, from what he’s told me. That means a lot to him.
“He gets up in the morning and starts talking about football. He just lights up and can’t wait to have a game. Every day, he talks about the game, and I say, ‘yes, but today’s Tuesday. The game’s not until Friday.’ He just loves it.”
And, she said, the benefits should continue long after Walker finishes school.
“I think his communication and social skills will be very important in his life when he’s out of school,” she said. “There’s lots of things he cannot do. He can’t read much. He can read some words. He can’t count really high. He writes very poorly. But he can get along with people. It just seems like everybody loves him. He’s just always joyful, but he realizes what’s going on.
“He tries and he’s lost weight. The exercise has been very good for him. It just been amazing. I have people come up to me all the time and say, ‘I love seeing your son on the field.’”
For the players, Walker serves as an inspiration.
“To us, it means a lot,” defensive lineman Victory Calderon said. “His abilities don’t allow him to go out there with us, but seeing him makes us want to play even harder. We’ve got the chance to do something other people can’t. We’ve got the chance to do something he really wants to do but can’t.
“So every time we go in there and break it out, he always goes in there with us. He may not understand it, but we know his motives. He wants to win and he’s a proud Bearcat. I consider him a member of the team. I don’t consider him an extra part of it, separate. He is a Bearcat.
“Every time he breaks it our, he always says, ‘win.’ I’m more inspired by Walker than he should be by us, regardless of his situation out here, regardless of anything.”
Offensive lineman Mekhi Johnson-Berry said having Walker on the team has been great.
“He’s an awesome kid,” Johnson-Berry said. “He doesn’t say much, but just having him there, he brings an energy about him and it collectively keeps us up as a team. When we’re playing bad, he lets us know, even though he’s a man of few words.
“You’ve got to be a little patient with him, but I wouldn’t consider him (to be a distraction) at all. He has the label of ‘special ed,’ but I wouldn’t consider him that. The kid’s just special.”
Quarterback Blaise Bentsen said Wedell’s presence reminds the players that there’s more to life than Friday night games.
“It just provides us an opportunity to be humble and see that it’s not just all about football,” Bentsen said. “We want him to be a part of this, be a part of the program, what we’re trying to build.
“I feel like as team, it humbles us, brings us back down to earth knowing that we can have an impact on other peoples’ lives through football. It’s not just that we’re the big guys and the big shots around campus and around town.”
Wedell also participates in softball and Special Olympics as well as playing golf and basketball. Nicki Wedell said it’s no surprise her son has been able to fit in with the football team.
“He’s always been very social,” she said. “We’ve always taken him everywhere we went. We never didn’t want to take him somewhere because we thought people would look at him different or treat him different.
“When he was little, his teachers used to say that Walker’s main problem is that he can’t get to class on time because he has to say hi to everybody and everybody has to say hi to him. He’s very outgoing.”
The Bearcats efforts to include Wedell stretch for his participation in practice drills to the inflatable run-through tunnel before games to postgame huddles.
“He goes to practice, he gets in a couple of drills and the kids are super nice,” Martinez said. “He just wants to be part of it. Every now and then, we’ll throw him in a drill. When he goes to practice, he has a helmet on, shoulder pads.”
Calderon emphasized that such efforts are more than just a good-will gesture for the Bearcats.
“(Wedell’s) getting the experience that many kids in his situation don’t get,” Calderon said. “Like with the tunnel. He always loves going at the end, but one game he wanted to go at the front. We went to the front and I was like, ‘Walker, I don’t know, man. There’s some big dudes behind us.’ We were running out there and looked back, and, ‘oh, man, keep chopping.’”
Following Sherman’s game at Garland Naaman Forest on Sept. 21, Wedell was the first to volunteer when Martinez asked for a someone to lead the team prayer.
“It means a lot,” defensive back Austin Bindel said of such moments. “We can see that he is trying to be a part of the team and we make him feel like he’s part of the team. I think we’re doing a pretty good job bringing him along.
“The prayer was short. It was ‘Kick butt. Amen.’”
Through it all, players said, is Wedell’s unwavering support, regardless of how a game may be going.
“I think the biggest part of it is he’s just always positive,” Bentsen said. “He’s always got a big smile on his face. He loves being out there. That reminds us if we throw a pick or miss a tackle or lose a game, there’s always more to it. And that’s about being happy, being a team and growing as people.”
Calderon said the Bearcats have quickly come to appreciate the situation.
“The thing I love about Walker is whenever we’re down, he always comes behind me and hits me in the shoulder,” Calderon said. “Of course, he thinks we’re made of iron, so he gives it everything he’s got and tells us, ‘we got this.’
“One time, we were losing and I was on a knee and kind of mad. My emotions got to me. I felt someone touch me on the back and at that moment I wanted to be left alone. I looked back and saw Walker, and he said, ‘we got this.’ He kept repeating that over and over. Even though we didn’t win, it gave me a sense of hope that we’ve got this thing. He was giving us hope as much as we were giving him the experience to go out there and play with us.”
While several programs have staged plays for a special-needs student to score a touchdown or make a tackle, such will not be the case with the Bearcats, at least this season. Wedell, though listed on the roster as a wide receiver and defensive back, is not on Sherman’s UIL participation list, a requirement for appearing in varsity contests.
“Walker’s a sophomore,” Martinez said. “If we get down that road and he stays with us, maybe we’ll cross that bridge his senior year. But that is something we definitely have to look at down the road.”
But during two-a-days, the Bearcats did conclude one practice with Wedell getting a carry.
“We might need to end practice again with Walker running the ball,” Martinez said. “That was kind of fun.
“It’s always good. We enjoy having him around. And at the same time, it’s like when you watch those movies. People may think, ‘they’re really nice, they’re helping Walker.’ But in the end, it’s really, he’s helping us.”