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Youth Sports Heroes: Bridgewater (MA) Badgers Pee Wee Football Team & Valley H.S. Varsity/JV Baseball Teams (Elk Grove, CA)

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December is the month when journalists across the nation tie up the year's loose ends. With that motivation, I write here about two youth teams that deserve all the accolades they have received. The teams play on opposite coasts, play different sports, and in different seasons. One team's players are younger than the other's, and neither team has ever met the other. Their only common thread is that on each one, teammates joined together to do the right thing at the right time.

"We Should All Respect That"

Six-year-old kindergartener Danny Keefe is the water boy (or the "official water coach," as the players call him) for the Bridgewater Badgers pee wee football team. From a severe brain hemorrhage shortly after birth, Danny has childhood apraxia of speech, which leaves him unable to talk clearly enough for people to understand. He also chooses to wear a jacket, tie and fedora to school each day, as well as on the sidelines at the Badgers' games. (It's his idea of the "Tom Landry look," according to some news media.)

Earlier this month, the Badgers fifth-graders learned that some of their Williams Intermediate School classmates were picking on Danny for his speech impediment and his attire. According to ABC News, kids would make fun of him with taunts such as "Just talk. Just talk. Why don't you talk?" Or they would take his hat away and throw mulch in his hair.

To support Danny and send a message to the kids who were making fun of him, the Badgers football players held "Danny Appreciation Day" at school on November 20. Every team member arrived wearing - you guessed it - a jacket, tie and fedora. About 45 students joined in the recognition that silenced the bullies, and perhaps taught them a thing or two about tolerance and empathy. The team's gesture, said Danny, "makes me happy because I know I have friends that will look out for me if I get picked on."

"He's such a good person," eleven-year-old Badgers quarterback Tommy Cooney said about the team's water coach. "We should all respect that." Holding back tears, the quarterback told WCVB News that the team wanted "to show Danny that we love him - that we love him very much." 


"A Great Group of Guys"

Seven  months earlier, and three thousand miles from Bridgewater, the Valley High School varsity baseball team in Elk Grove, California was struggling to the end of tough spring season. The Vikings' record stood at 5 wins and 19 losses when they held their last practice on May 8, a day before their final game.  As the coaches were putting the sixteen varsity and junior varsity players through their paces midway through the session, the players heard sudden screams for help in the nearby school parking lot from a mother and the daughter she had just dropped off for an after-school program. The mother had panicked when she rear-ended a car, threw her car into reverse, and accidentally ran over the sixteen-year-old girl, pinning her underneath.

All sixteen players raced off the field, hopped the fence, and together lifted the four-door sedan off the girl as their coach removed her. She was bleeding near her ears but recovered after leaving the hospital the next day. Without the players' timely intervention, the outcome might have been much different if the mother had lurched the car forward instead.

"It was like, a reaction," pitcher Chas Roberts told KCRA News, "You had to do what you had to do to save someone'e life." "We did something that actually saved the day," added teammate Ysidro Castro, proudly.

"To be honest with you," said co-head coach Brett Sawyer after the team lost its final game the next day, "we might not have the best baseball team around, but we sure do have a great group of guys."  That was the understatement of the week. 


Taking a Stand

Some youth sports headlines make us cringe these days, but the Bridgewater Badgers and the Valley High School Vikings did something that made people feel good. Their example - that sports can be noble or ignoble, depending on who is playing and how they play - continues to resonate.

Amid reports that bullying was allegedly common in the Miami Dolphins locker room, commentators debate whether bullying among teammates is an indispensable part of football culture that should be tolerated, and even encouraged, in pursuit of toughness on the gridiron. What ever the answer might be for millionaire adults who play in the National Football League's multibillion-dollar enterprise, the answer is almost certainly different for children who play football in towns and cities all across America, with little or no prospect of ever seeing hefty paychecks from the game.

Even before they take the field again, the Bridgewater Badgers pee wees contributed a valuable perspective to the youth league discussion. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention calls bullying among elementary and secondary school students a "major public health problem," which can inflict potentially devastating short- and long-term damage on victims and other students.  Bystanders often make the problem worse when they fail to stand up for victims, many of whom are singled out just for being "different." Too often, bystanders join the bullies. What the Badgers demonstrated when they rallied around Danny Keefe, rather than remain silent, was summed up best by Tommy Cooney in one magic word: respect.

"Just Waiting to Be Summoned"

Faced with a different challenge, the Valley High Vikings personified the adage that "a hero is an ordinary person who performs an ordinary task in an extraordinary situation." They were ordinary baseball players conducting an ordinary practice session a day before their last game. Lifting a car a few inches is a chore for sixteen high school players, but otherwise an ordinary task that required split-second decisionmaking in an extraordinary situation. "With all the teamwork we had going on," said Viking player, Sukhminder Gill, "it felt like we could pick anything up. . . . The adrenaline was pumping up."

"Heroes are hard to find," sang the British rock band Fleetwood Mac in their 1974 hit song. The group may have made great music, but they missed the mark about heroism. Heroes are not hard to find.  President Obama is right: "Heroism is . . . all around us, just waiting to be summoned."

Sources: Jamescia Thomas, Peewee Football Team Creates Appreciation Day for Bullied Boy, http://abcnews.go.com/blogs/headlines/2013/11/peewee-football-team-creat... (Nov. 25, 2013); Massachusetts Peewee Football Team Observes "Danny Appreciation Day" In Honor of Danny Keefe, First Grader With a Speech Condition, http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/11/24/danny-keefe_n_4325089.html (Nov. 24, 2013); High School Baseball Team Lifts Car Off Girl, http://news.ca.msn.com/world/high-school-baseball-team-lifts-car-off-gir... (May 10, 2013); Cameron Smith, California Baseball Team Springs Into Action to Lift Car, Save Trapped Girl's Life, http://sports.yahoo.com/blogs/highschool-prep-rally/california-baseball-... (May 9, 2013).