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 said.
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.”