This Is What True Inclusion in Sports Looks Like
Someone with a disability wants a job. A local business hires them. The media goes wild.
Someone with a disability wins homecoming king or queen. The media goes wild.
Someone with a disability is a manager, mascot, or token player on a team. A huge deal is made, awards are given and the media goes wild.
A list like this can go on and on. Some people call these types of stories “inspiration porn.” I don’t go that far. I understand people have good hearts. Everyone wants to see a kinder and gentler world.
But these stories do trouble me, because I see very low expectations. As the parent of a 19-year-old with Down syndrome, I understand a family’s personal excitement and pride. But the reality is that getting a job or being on a team should be the norm, not the news. As someone who has worked hard for full inclusion in my community for people with all kinds of disabilities, for decades, I hate to see regression. So many of us work for progress.
Because of this, my family was pleasantly surprised when we met a local young man who has quietly achieved what so many do not even know is possible. He has been a kicker on his varsity football team. He has been named player of the game. He has won Homecoming King. And he is truly a part of the fabric of his school. This young man is named Caden Cox, and he happens to have Down syndrome.
The first time we went to see Caden play a game, we did not know what to expect. Here we were, the ones with high expectations, and I cannot honestly say we had them. But as soon as we got there, midway through the game, I was up taking video of Caden kicking a kickoff, one where he tackled a player on the return. I was then up and down filming Caden practicing at halftime with the other kickers, and kicking extra points during the game. What made me so happy, and genuinely excited, was seeing the crowd loving Caden, and Caden returning that love. He is full of personality and loves to dance and raise spirit with his team and the crowd. I knew then and there this was something truly special, and that his team, York High School, was in for a magical season. I said to his mom that day, the day I was first meeting her, “Caden will be Homecoming King. I am sure of it. 100 percent.”
They had that perfect season. They were undefeated. They won their first playoff game. This is the team that had the “cheer dad.” He was featured on ABC news, and Michael Strahan’s show GMA3, to name a few places. He will make you smile. What made us smile even more was this. When the cheer dad and his daughter Mackenzie were on GMA3, she made a shout out to her good friend Caden a few times. And she did not say, “to my friend who has Down syndrome and is on the team.” That was so perfect — because to her, Caden is a friend, not a token. I have a photo of Caden with Mackenzie and her dad that I took after the game.
You see, Caden is a football player to the core. He comes from a real football family. His brother, father, uncles and cousins played in college. Caden aspired to do everything his older brother Zane did. I remember that moment when I told his mom he would be Homecoming King. She said, “Oh, that would be so nice. You see his brother was Homecoming King, and he wants to do everything his brother did. But we cannot count on that and certainly don’t expect it. We will see.”
We are so grateful that we saw Caden play several games, including his last one. His last game was not the team’s last game. You see his revered brother Zane had his last game at UT Martin the same day. Caden was torn — should he be with his team in playoff game number two, or should he see his brother play his last game? (His brother is also a kicker.) At the end of the week, Caden finally decided he had to be with his brother, with his supportive coach’s blessing. And that is how Zane’s and Caden’s magical seasons, and football careers, ended. Both teams lost that last week, but the extremely close brothers were a family unit at the end.
There were so many “coincidences” (I call them Godwinks) with Caden and his brother Zane. They were both kickers. They were both voted Homecoming King. They even both had blue high school football jerseys on in their homecoming pictures, even though they attended different high schools in different states. They both had very successful final football seasons. And their football playing days ended the same week.
We got to meet many members of his family, who traveled from Richmond, other parts of Virginia and Ohio to see him play. We got to see Caden crowned Homecoming King — that was when my husband got the perfect shot you see here. We got to see the “Cheer Dad” and meet him. We got to experience the love of high school football, from a unique perspective of gratitude for progress. Gratitude for real inclusion. And gratitude for community and friendship. All in an undefeated regular season.
I am also grateful that Caden’s mom shares his story simply to help other families who have children with disabilities have the expectation that their child can also play on a varsity team. Many parents have told her that until they saw Caden’s pictures, they had no idea their child could do what their sibling did, etc. Never once has his mom thought Caden was extraordinary, in need of an award, etc. He played football strictly for the love of football. I love that so much.
That is why I am writing this piece. Because this is a real story of a young man who earned his spot as a kicker on the varsity team with his ability. There were no “staged plays” for him, or last-minute substitutions when the score showed a solid lead. He played often in some games, and less often in others — just like many other players. He was not only a solid player for his team, he actively encouraged his team and the crowds. He is a very real and integral part of his school. For all those reasons, he won Homecoming King — not because he has Down syndrome. Because he is the one and only Caden Cox. Someday I hope and believe this will be the norm. As of now, in December 2019, this is not the norm. But it certainly gives us a higher bar to aspire to.
What’s next for Caden? Track season, where he throws the shot put. We’ll be there. And after that? Whatever Caden wants to do, he will do. That we know for sure.