Sophomore Danny Leach looked behind him as he streaked the
length of the football field, gauging his distance from the
opposing team in pursuit. The last few seconds of his run seemed to
last forever as he tried to decide if he had enough time to duck
out of bounds. When he reached the 30-yard line, he made up his
mind-he would step out near the end zone.
This touchdown wouldn't be his-this one he wanted to give to his
teammate, Danny Catalano.
Catalano, who has autism, was trotting out onto the football
field when his dad, Rick Catalano, saw what was going on and bolted
down the sideline. Rick was working the chain gang at the other end
of the field when he realized his son's teammate had deliberately
stepped out at the 1-yard line. Now his son was lining up in the
backfield to bring the ball home for the Downers Grove South
Mustangs sophomore team.
The diagnosis and beyond
Kathie Hiatt, Danny Catalano's mom, knew early that her son
wasn't developing the same way as his older brother. She began
pushing doctors for answers, even those who said there was nothing
wrong or that Danny was too young to test. Finally, Kathie's worst
fears were confirmed when she discovered Danny had been suffering
constant seizures. He was diagnosed with autism, ADD, PDD. Tests
showed he was highly intelligent, but that intelligence was locked
away by a breakdown in the ability to communicate.
As a preschooler, Danny was echolalic, repeating what someone
said to him. As he got older, he would use words and phrases from
movies to respond in a conversation. He had an almost computer-like
memory for Disney movies and sports. He began spouting statistics
about baseball and football, using them as a way to communicate.
His ability to interact with others was limited. Though he wanted
to have friends over to the house, when they came, they would stand
in awkward silence as Danny played alone.
But during the Mustang's 2009 football season, his parents and
stepparents watched a new Danny begin to emerge-one who patted each
player's back as they ran off the field, telling them good job,
good job, even if they'd made a bad play.
Things went well for the Mustangs this season-they shut out
every team in their conference-and Danny radiated pure joy as his
team pummeled their opponents. He would often begin a crazy dance
of delight on the sidelines during big plays, kicking up his feet
and wiggling his butt. His teammates loved it.
Leach's season with the Mustangs, meanwhile, was hitting its
stride with the Addison Trail game-he'd proven to be a superstar at
returning the ball on kickoff and punt returns. He could spot a
hole in a heartbeat, and his legs pumped down the field faster than
any of his opponents. He would ultimately score five touchdowns
this season. But the additional touchdown he could have made, that
one he wanted to give to Danny Catalano.
Leach's parents, Traci and Steve, knew their son was having a
good season. They'd seen him run the length of the field to score
numerous times. Still, they insisted their son always be humble.
They told him that when he scored, there should be no celebratory
dance in the end zone. Instead, they told him to hand the ball to
the referee and rejoin his team.
Head Coach Mark Wiggins had seen what Leach could do when the
ball was in his hands. He also knew that, more than anything, Danny
Catalano wanted to score a touchdown. Wiggins and the other coaches
were looking out for her son, Kathie knew, but she was prepared for
a long season of watching games where Danny never played.
"I'll play if we're winning or losing by a lot," Danny Catalano
told his parents. And because this season his team was always
winning by a lot-sometimes by as much as 40-0 at halftime-Danny
would get his chance.
His stepmom, Cheryl, had been there during the game against Leyden
High School, when the score was high enough to put in second- and
third-string players. When she saw Danny's number and realized he
was going out on the field, Cheryl, a photographer, raised her
camera to snap a photo. But when she heard the boys on the field
begin to chant Danny's name, her hands were shaking so hard she
could barely snap the shutter.
Now a month later at the Addison Trail game on Oct. 16, the
boys' families watched as Leach caught the kickoff. He quickly saw
his teammates had nailed their blocks, creating a hole wide enough
to cruise through. He began running the 79 yards downfield. No one
could touch him.
Neither boy's parents realized that during halftime, Wiggins had
told the team that if ever there was a chance to get Danny Catalano
a touchdown, this game was it. On the sidelines before the boys
took the field for the kickoff return, Wiggins turned to Leach and
told him, "If you get the ball, you can run it back, but think
about taking it out at the 1-yard line for Danny." He left the
decision up to Leach.
As Leach passed all the other football players on the field, he
realized he could do it. Wiggins watched Leach veer to the left and
thought, "Is this really happening?" He guessed that once Leach had
the ball, fueled by all that adrenaline, he'd just run past the
goal line like any teenage boy would.
From the bleachers, Leach's parents assumed their son had just
scored. But when they saw the offensive line heading to the 1-yard
line, they figured there must have been a penalty. It wasn't until
they saw Danny Catalano heading out to the field that they realized
what their son had done.
Rick Catalano realized too-almost too late to get down the
field. He dropped the chain and sprinted toward the end zone. He
reached the 5-yard line as the quarterback handed Danny the ball.
Nervous, Danny dropped it, but a teammate recovered the fumble. The
next play, the quarterback carefully placed the ball into Danny's
hands. The offensive line bent, shoulder-to-shoulder, and charged
forward, carrying Danny along with them. When the ref signaled a
touchdown, Danny's teammates leaped into the air screaming.
"It was overwhelming. They willed him into the end zone," Rick
Friday night lights heroes
Both sets of parents see the other's child as the hero of the
story. But this story has room for both. Two teenage boys shared
the glory that Friday night under the lights.
"I know I'll never forget this in my whole life," Leach says,
"to see someone like him who loves the game so much, who even with
his disabilities enjoys it more than half the team did. I was so
happy and proud to be in a story like this. Letting someone like
Dan score a touchdown meant a lot to me."
For Rick, watching his son in the stadium and hearing people
chant his name was more than he had ever hoped for.
"Even when they're diagnosed early and young, there's still a
path of greatness," he said. "It's been a phenomenal experience.
It's so much more than football."
Liz DeCarlo is the former senior editor at Chicago Parent.
See more of Liz's stories here.
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