Tears, cheers as Lisle football player with Down syndrome scores touchdown
If Jake Skonieczny needed a reminder that this was the most important moment in his football career, his mentor gave him a few last inspiring words.
"This is your game," Coach John Ruettiger told the Lisle Junior High student.
The season finale for the Lions could have been a send-off for Ruettiger, who's retiring after more than 20 years coaching.
But there was no question this game belonged to Jake.
The seventh-grader who has Down syndrome rose to the occasion in the second quarter Thursday night in front of a home crowd. Burr Ridge had held his team scoreless heading into halftime until the Lions quarterback handed off to Jake.
He went 60 yards along the Lisle sideline for his first touchdown run. Spectators -- Jake's friends and classmates since kindergarten -- rushed the field for an end zone celebration that could make even a tough ref a little misty-eyed.
"How awesome was that? See, that's what it's about, letting a kid like that participate in the program," said Ruettiger, who held back at about the 30-yard line, watching both teams rally around Jake. "It's not about winning or losing, just giving him finally his chance to do something good."
It's a playbook familiar to the coach, whose brother, Notre Dame legend Dan "Rudy" Ruettiger, finally got his chance to make the history books as a senior walk-on who recorded a sack in the final seconds of the 1975 classic against Georgia Tech.
And though Irish players carried Rudy off the field, Jake's teammates took a more personal approach: singing "Take Me Out to the Ballgame" with the die-hard Cubs fan.
"He's just like one of the guys, and that's what he so strives for all the time," his mom, Sandi Skonieczny, said.
Jake's touchdown didn't technically count toward the final score. And the Lions would go on to suffer a 34-18 loss.
But Jake, a manager for the team since last year, was no less thrilled with his turn on the gridiron.
"I get to be with my friends," he said during the pregame practice.
Around the junior high and at home, Jake is a social butterfly and a protective big brother.
"He's got a belly laugh that can get anybody laughing," his mom said. "He'd be a perfect plant in an audience for a comedian because when he starts laughing, you can't not laugh."
He's also a considerate 13-year-old. When Jake was a fifth-grader, one of the assistant principals at his elementary school had a death in her family.
"She was just kind of down, and he had no idea, but he stopped her in the hallway and gave her a big hug," his mom said. "She was like, 'How did he know? I needed that at that moment.'"
He kept that caring attitude on the football field Thursday, reaching out his hand to help up an opposing player in the fourth quarter.
"All he talks about is football," his teacher Jessica Aurilio said.
Lisle played only two games this season because other teams in their conference have struggled to recruit players.
Knowing the uncertainty around next year's season, Ruettiger reached out to Sandi Skonieczny about Jake suiting up for the game Thursday. The plan left the proud mom "choked up" and his dad, a former St. Ambrose University football player, appreciative that his son would have the experience.
"Ever since he was a little boy, we played in the backyard," David Skonieczny said.
Jake grew up in the school district with friends who have embraced him. They know him so well that they can serve as interpreters for adults who may struggle to understand his words because of a speech disorder.
"His speech is still underdeveloped for his age," said his mom, a former Special Olympics coordinator and adaptive PE teacher in Schaumburg School District 54. "It's hard to understand, but he doesn't give up. He keeps trying. He keeps going."
Before the game, she hoped spectators would recognize that perseverance in her son, too.
"No matter what your ability or disability is, if you really want to do something, you can find a way to get it done and do it," she said.
On Friday morning, Jake and his teacher handed out blue and yellow ribbons to junior high students in honor of Down syndrome awareness month, undoubtedly still ecstatic from the game.
To understand his anticipation over the past week, his mom points to his new uniform that Jake kept under his bed and out of the reach of his 9-year-old brother.
"It's good for Jacob. It's good for these kids to be a part of it with him," Ruettiger said. "And that's the main thing. It's not about us. It's about Jacob having his day."