Minutes before their opening playoff game on a cold October evening, Staley High School head coach Phil Lite points at all his players, gathered in green and black, huddled before him in the locker room.
“The Falcon way,” Lite says. “It’s fast, it’s physical. We play smart, we play hard, we play together.”
Everyone nods. The coaches, the players, and, in the very center of the room, the young man draped in a green coat, sitting a motorized wheelchair.
The undefeated Falcons football team is hoping to make a run at a championship this year. Their motivation is senior Daniel Ludwig, a quadriplegic with cerebral palsy, who attends every game and does so quite loudly, encouraging players and getting them in the right mindset.
"Everybody has a juice guy,” says wide receiver Rod Chris. “Daniel is our juice guy. He's always there getting us pumped up before the game."
"He's just like any other teammate of mine,” says defensive end Tyler Miller. “I just feel very inspired that I have somebody riding my back like that and wanting better for me."
Ludwig's reason for liking sports is simple.
“Being with the team,” he says. “Being with the coaches and the players.”
"He usually tells me how many touchdowns he wants from me,” quarterback John Raybourn says. “And I try to live up to his expectations. Sometimes they're pretty high."
"I think it comes from his desire to play,” says Miller. “He inspires us. Just knowing Daniel, you know if he could, he’d be out there on that field giving it his all.”
Before every game, home and away, Ludwig is on the field with his teammates, buzzing around from sideline to sideline during warmups in his chair, moving from position group to position group. He is talkative, critical, encouraging and genuinely invested.
“"You know, I have it pretty good,” Raybourn says. “I'm able to play the game and I know he'd give a lot to be able to play it, too."
On October 6, Staley hosted rivals Kearney on senior night. Like every other senior, Daniel received a commemorative football.
That was just the beginning.
“It all came together on the fly,” says Lite. “That afternoon, Rod came up and said, 'Hey coach, you think we could have Daniel score a touchdown?"
"I just wanted to give him the same opportunity we all do with scoring touchdowns,” says Chris. “On senior night I figured it fit."
After Staley won by 42 points, everyone gathered around the 40-yard line with anticipation. Everyone knew it was coming.
Everyone except Ludwig and his parents.
“I looked at my wife Donna and I said, “I think they’re gonna run a play,” Ludwig's father, Douglas Ludwig, said. “I think they’re going to give the ball to Daniel.”
Raybourn lined up the offense and the defense, took the snap and handed the ball to his teammate wearing the No. 95 jersey.
“Run it into the end zone,” Daniel Ludwig remembers thinking.
He glided 40 yards in his chair, his teammates and coaches supporting him the whole way.
"Once he reached the end zone, they were just jumping up and down with joy,” Douglas Ludwig said.
"It was amazing,” Daniel Ludwig quietly recalls. “I didn't know I was gonna score a touchdown."
Douglas Ludwig says he has seen similar plays before, on the news and on the Internet.
“But when you see it with your own son? It was incredible," he said.
Lite says it’s one of his proudest moments in his career. The Falcons may have a playoff pursuit on their minds at the moment, but in the long run, it’s the night of Oct. 6 that will leave the grandest mark.
“We talk about how important connections are and relationships,” Lite says. “When they talk about Daniel and about what that means to them personally and our team and Staley, that's pretty special."
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