Inclusion is the name of the game for YMCA flag-football team

Written by Heather Riggleman Hub Staff Writer

KEARNEY—A game of flag football made parents misty eyed Saturday when an entire team of second- and third-grade boys gave Toby McDonald, a boy with Down syndrome, the chance to score a touchdown.

The idea came from their coaches, Casey Fosher and Brandon Grauerholz.

“We wanted Toby to be able to snap the ball and be a part of a few plays. So I talked with the refs and the other team to let them know what we wanted to do for Toby,” Fosher said. His son Kashtyn also is on the team. Fosher said when he first got the roster of the boys on his team, he contacted all the parents and learned Toby is a non-verbal 10-year-old with Down syndrome.

He said Toby’s parents, Suzanne and Toby McDonald of Kearney, just wanted their son to have a chance to hang out with the boys.

Suzanne said Saturday was a day she will never forget.

“I was sitting with all the other parents on the sidelines, cheering on the team, when I witnessed something I will never forget. The quarterback handed the ball off to Toby. Not sure what to do next, Toby just stood there. As one teammate encouraged him to run, the rest of the team proceeded to surround my son, protecting him from the defenders, and escorted him to the end zone where everyone erupted in cheers and high fives,” she said.

Sara Norman, mother of teammate Treyton Sedersten, said all the parents and children at the game were moved by the act.

“The coach instructed the boys to help Toby make a touchdown. It was so emotional watching both teams help him make a touchdown,” Norman said. She said the other team pretended to miss grabbing Toby’s flags and faked falling down behind him.

“Once Toby realized he scored a touchdown, his sixth grade mentor Zack Waston told him to do his little dance just like the rest of the boys do when they score,” Norman said.

After the game, Treyton said he felt as if he had been part of something special.

“I liked being able to see Toby do what we get to do. It was cool to be a part of it,” he said. Norman said the boys understood the end result wasn’t about winning the game, but it was about helping Toby be just like them.

The McDonalds signed Toby up for the flag football team at the Kearney Family YMCA. He was placed on the Cowboys team, and members were mindful about including Toby from the beginning.

“From the first practice, I noticed them using sign language to communicate with him. I’ve witnessed his teammates’ desire for Toby to succeed and their willingness to make whatever adjustments necessary to make this possible for him,” Suzanne said.

Toby’s parents adopted him internationally and opted to ensure he was a included in the mainstream in all activities, including school. Suzanne said Buffalo Hills Elementary School has been very accommodating, and 80 percent of his day is spent in the classroom.

On her blog, Nothing Down About It, Suzanne wrote:

“More than anything else, Toby wants to be just like the other boys his age. He kind of reminds me of Pinocchio wanting to be a real boy. He loves to imitate everything that his friends do. What better way for him to become more like a typical 10-year-old than to surround himself with typical peers all day long?”

Also in the crowd at Toby’s big game was Chelsea Feusner, the mother of teammate Carter and principal at Buffalo Hills.

“It was great to see the culture of our building extended into the community, that it truly is neat to see that it carries on and we have taught and fostered that understanding, patience and acceptance. I get to see it on a day-to-day basis with our kids, but then to see from the sidelines in action was pretty neat,” she said.

The morning after the game, Toby woke up Suzanne. “He did his touchdown dance and signed ‘more,’” she said.

The McDonalds are parents of five children, Emma Lee, 18, Cassandra, 16, Kylee, 14, and two sons with Down syndrome. Toby, 10, was adopted from Ukraine in 2010 and Boaz, 3, was adopted from Bulgaria in 2015.