Emily Winchester wasn’t sleeping well at night. During the days, her stomach was in knots. She knew she had to be supportive of her son, but she just couldn’t tame her nerves ahead of the Canyon JV football season.
Most parents experience some sense of anxiety when their child starts a new sport, but Emily’s situation was a little different. Her son, Ethan, is on the spectrum.
“I didn’t know how it was going to go,” she said. “And then the first practice, it changed. Everything changed. I couldn’t ask for a better situation.”
Ethan, a freshman at Canyon, never really took an interest in sports until recently. At five years old, he tried baseball and soccer, then later began playing youth football at the recommendation of a doctor who said that children on the spectrum tend to enjoy contact sports.
So when Ethan approached his parents with the request to play prep football, his parents were shocked.
“It was a pleasant surprise for me,” said Ethan’s father, Scott Winchester, who also played at Canyon in high school. “I never thought he’d play high school football and of course I always wanted a son that would play high school football, but never pressured him to do so. It was fully, 100 percent his decision.”
Scott warned him of the hard work that comes with playing football. He spoke of commitment and the ability to stay strong when tough situations arise. But he emphasized one point above everything else: Quitting was not an option.
And so Ethan began football. He ran the gassers, did the individual drills and trained exactly the same as his fellow defensive linemen.
“I wanted to start football up again when I first started high school,” Ethan said. “I needed some exercise anyway. And I figured it would be a good opportunity to get some exercise, make some friends and go places.”
It was difficult at first. Ethan’s body became stronger, but not without struggles. Shin splints plagued him throughout preseason, causing him to limp home every day, exhausted. Still, he wasn’t deterred. Rather, it was the opposite.
“During the shin splints, he had a hard time getting up the stairs and he was going to take a bath with Epsom salt,” Emily said. “I was trying to help him out and I was telling him how proud I was of him and he said ‘I have to do this, I’m going to be a beacon of hope’ … I left the bathroom and I just cried.”
Although Ethan might not see the impact he has on other people, his teammates do. During practices, Ethan never complains.
“I was watching kids throw up on gassers, sitting on the fence, doing nothing, but the kid that kept running was him,” said varsity offensive lineman Jacob Lopez. “He had a lot of heart in him. He has everything inside of him as a warrior.”
The knots in Emily’s stomach have vanished. She’s the team mom and comes to every one of Ethan’s games. He’s proven himself in the Cowboys’ scrimmages and has taken plenty of reps in regular season games.
He’s always ready to jump on the scout team and compete against more experienced players. Although his parents aren’t pushing him to play four years of football, it seems like Ethan is willing to keep his playing career going.
“It’s very exciting,” Ethan said. “You have to focus, you’re a bit nervous when you’re on the field, but it’s very exciting at the exact same time. It’s a bit of a weird feeling. A feeling you can only experience when you’re up there.”