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Youth Sports Heroes of the Month: Acts of True Sportsmanship 1200 Miles Apart

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In early July, the clock showed less than three minutes to play and coach Brian Murray’s Ellicott Hawks were down by double digits in their Mid American Youth Basketball tournament game in Pueblo, Colorado. With the outcome apparent, the Canutillo (Tex.) Select Junior Varsity put 16-year-old Adrian Martinez into the game for the first time.

Adrian practices hard, but he sees little action in games because his mother says that the coach fears that someone will injure him. She is fine with her son’s limited playing time because “just the simple fact that he sits on the bench with the rest of the team as a player and not just as a manager means a lot to him.”

Fourteen years ago, Adrian Martinez was diagnosed with autism.

More Than Just Winning

When he saw Adrian about to enter the game, coach Murray called time out and gathered his Ellicott team at the bench. The Canutillo squad grew concerned, because some opponents had gone after Adrian in prior games, but Murray had other ideas in mind. “There’s more to sports than just winning,” he told the team, “People can grow and learn life lessons from it.”

Rather than exploit a weakness, Murray’s plan was to “help [Adrian] have a little fun by letting him score.” The Ellicott players agreed and turned the ball over a few times. Adrian responded with nine points, including a three-pointer.

“I got to play in a few games,” Adrian later told the El Paso Times, “but this was the best one for me. . . . The Hawks called me the MVP of the game. That was pretty special.”

“I Just Wanted To Do the Right Thing”

Last month’s basketball game in Pueblo recalls a similar generous gesture that took place on November 29, 2012 in a middle school wrestling match between two seventh-graders about 1200 miles away in Brentwood, Tennessee. Thirteen-year-old Sunset Middle School wrestler Jared Stevens has cerebral palsy, which has left him with the physical abilities of a six-month-old though his intellectual ability is close to that of other children his age.

Jared practices with the Sunset team every day and cheers his teammates in every match. But he uses a wheelchair and had never wrestled in a match before his coach, Clay Mayes, phoned Freedom Middle School’s coach, Randy Stevens (no relation to Jared). The two coaches agreed that Jared would wrestle in the teams’ upcoming match. Mayes said that he did not care about weight class, and asked Stevens to select the Freedom wrestler with “the kindest heart.” Stevens selected 12-year-old Justin Kievit and explained the situation to the seventh-grade captain.

The two wrestlers had never met one another before. “I think a lot of people are scared to put kids like me on the mat,” Jared told Franklin Home Page afterwards, “but they don’t need to be.” Jared could not stand on his own, so an assistant coach carried him onto the mat and laid him down. Justin admitted to the Tennessean that he was “a little nervous. I shook his hand and he couldn’t really move. Then I kind of figured out what to do.” The referee blew his whistle, and Justin twisted and turned a bit before deliberately losing the match by putting Jared’s arm over him to score the pin as the crowd cheered.

”I really didn’t care if I won or lost,” Justin later told WSMV-TV, “I just wanted to do the right thing and make everyone happy.” The match was over in 18 seconds, and Jared was carried from the mat with a big smile on his face. Within hours, their match had gone viral on Facebook and YouTube and the two wrestlers appeared together on national television news interviews.

Three Basic Values

Letting Adrian Martinez score points or Jared Stevens register a pin ran counter to every instinct of athletes who are trained to want to win. True sportsmen care about the score, and they do not normally let up on the opponent during the game. But true sportsmen also care about respect for the opponent’s dignity. Willingly yielding advantage to an opponent demands empathy, but Justin Kievit was right when he told Good Morning America that “sometimes winning . . . isn’t the most important thing.”

Adrian Martinez and Jared Stevens also deserve to share in the limelight. So do Brian Murray, Clay Mayes and Randy Stevens, the three coaches who helped make the gestures possible.

When a youngster stands out as an “only” -- the only player with a disability, for example -- the easier path may seem not to participate at all because most kids feel greatest comfort when they fit in with their peer groups. Adrian and Jared, however, have spurned the easier path. Like the traveler who came upon diverging roads in Robert Frost’s celebrated poem, “The Road Not Taken,” both have taken the road “less traveled by/ And that has made all the difference.” Here the difference is between actively playing sports or accepting exclusion while others play. “I just wanted to do what a normal kid would do,” Jared told CNN Headline News after the wrestling match.

This trio of patient, devoted coaches knows that youth sports can be a two-way street. Playing with teammates and opponents offers much to children with disabilities, but children with disabilities also offer much to teammates and opponents.

These mutual offerings outlasted both the Colorado and Tennessee matchups. After his Colorado basketball team gave Adrian Martinez a chance, coach Murray reported that his players “made some really good friends in Texas. They are all on Facebook now.” A few nights after the wrestling match that went viral, the Kievit and Stevens families dined together so that the boys could get to know each another better. “He’s really funny,” said Justin, “He’s really nice too.” 

Sources: Victor R. Martinez, Act of Kindness Creates Bond Between 2 Basketball Teams, El Paso (Tex.) Times, July 8, 2013; Vickie Travis, Wrestling Debut Video of Disabled Brentwood Student Goes Viral, The Tennessean, Dec. 4, 2012; David Whitley, Justin Kievit Displays a Kind Heart, Lets Wrestler Jared Stevens Pin Him, Sporting News, Dec. 14, 2012; Rudy Kalis, Wrestler Wanted To “Do the Right Thing,” http://www.wsmv.com/story/20332428/wrestler-wanted-to-do-the-right-thing... Carol Stuart, Sunset-Freedom Video of Inspiring Wrestler Goes Viral, Franklin Home Page, Dec. 3. 2012; U.S. Dep’t of Education, Arne Duncan, We Must Provide Equal Opportunity.