Jonathan Rakshys of Commack was recently hospitalized for seizures.
The 9-year-old suffers from the rare genetic condition Mowat-Wilson Syndrome, which effects his physical and mental development.
Although he’s non-verbal, the doctors and staffers at the hospital two weeks ago all knew what was on his mind: football — Bay Shore Youth Football, specifically, and his involvement as a team captain.
“All he wanted to do was look at pictures of himself on the football field on his iPad,” said his father, Christian Rakshys. “He showed them to every doctor who came in. In his own way, he is very proud to be part of that team. As soon as you say football, he’ll go and get his jersey.
‘That’s what kind of an impact this has had on him.”
Jonathan (pictured above) is one of four children with special needs that have been taking part in the Bay Shore Youth Football league as captains. They each get their own jersey, help with the coin toss to decide who gets the ball first, and root from the sidelines with the other players — their teammates.
It’s an initiative that started with one child, Jackson Wyss of Bay Shore, and expanded this season with the addition of three more captains, including Jonathan.
“In general, [with youth football], you’re really not caring if you win or lose,” said Joseph Rao of Bay Shore, a NYPD officer who coaches the league’s 10-year-old team. “It’s really about getting the kids to be better kids.”
Inviting children with special needs onto the football field fits right in with that mission.
For Jonathan, his father said he’s been obsessed with watching the NFL on television, often playing back Jets games on DVR over and over. So when Jackson’s mom mentioned that Jonathan could join a football team in the Bay Shore league, the family jumped at the chance.
“We started with them from the first game of this year,”Rakshys said. “We showed up, they welcomed him with open arms and smiles; they had a jersey ready for him. And they rally around him.”
He said the boys will even run plays with Jonathan on the sidelines.
“They roughhouse with him; he loves it.”
breaking down barriers
Joey Rao, a fifth grader at Gardiner Manor School, has long had a special connection with his buddy Jackson, 8, who has cerebral palsy and doesn’t sit up or walk on his own.
Jackson is considered non-verbal, but he can understand well enough, and he says “hey,” and “let’s go,” or “who-hoo!” He can also throw a ball a decent distance.
That’s been enough for Joey.
But one day, the 10-year-old asked his parents and Jackson’s parents — the families are close — if Jackson could be part of the football team.
No one had a reason why Jackson shouldn’t join the team.
Joey got an emphatic yes, recalled Jackson’s mother, Tonya, also of Bay Shore, who called Joey the hero of this story for speaking up and getting the league’s special needs captain program rolling.
“I think that people are intimidated by a child in a wheelchair and a child who doesn’t act as a typical kid, and Joey never treated him that way,” said Tonya Wyss. “He never shouted at him or talked to him slowly. So for Jackson, it was like, ‘Hey I’m just getting treated normally.’”
That’s also how Jackson gets treated on the football field.
Jackson’s sheer joy when he’s around the team is all very apparent to Joey.
“He really likes being around us,” Joey said. “And he likes that we don’t think that he’s different. He’s always excited to come to the games. And he motivates us, because we think, if Jackson was on the field he would be playing his heart out, so when we’re down big we think about that.”
The elder Rao said it’s all about exposure, and putting different kids together and letting them figure it out.
“If the kids are exposed and they’re interacting with children with disabilities, or each other, it becomes something that’s not weird or something they need to step away from,” he said. “It’s just kids being kids.”
Christian Rakshys said 9-year-old Jonathan and his 13-year-old teammates were a bit nervous around each other early this season.
‘They were all a little nervous at first,” he said, “And I would say, ‘You won’t break him.’ And now they roughhouse with him. And the more they roughhouse the better it is.”
“I hope if anything they’re learning tolerance and acceptance,” Rakshys said of the other players.
“Just because he’s a bit different, and communicates a bit differently, and it takes a bit more effort to communicate with him, it’s still able to get done.
“And the kids did that [this season],” he added. “It took a little while to open up to the new kid, but they did.”
Having witnessed the benefits first hand, Joe Rao and Tonya Wyss would both like to see the program expanded somehow, either to other towns’ Police Athletic League football teams or just elsewhere in Bay Shore.
Rao points out how little effort it takes for a team to invite a special needs captain along.
“It’s not a lot of heavy lifting that needs to get done to get the kids involved,” he said. “There’s no planning. If it’s cold and they can’t come down to the field, then they don’t come down.”
Wyss likes to envision every team in Bay Shore, even within the schools, inviting a special needs child on as captain.
“You see it happening in other parts of the country,” she said. “This brings kids together and let’s everybody know that ability doesn’t make you any different. Just because your body might not work the same, kids are kids at the end of the day.”
“With my son, when those boys get around him, just looking at those pictures in the huddle … I know how happy he is,” she said.