When you live in a small town, soccer can be pretty competitive. The kids love to play and they love to win, which is what makes this story so touching.
Jackson Sommers was born with cerebellar atrophy, which happens when the cerebellum is smaller than normal or has atrophied from a previous state. Jackson had an MRI at 10 months old and by the time he was 2 years old, his cerebellum had atrophied to 40 percent of what a normal cerebellum should be.
The cerebellum controls your balance, coordination, muscles and memory. Because of this doctors told Jackson’s mother, Katie, that he would likely never walk on his own. They also told her that he would struggle to keep up with his peers and would most likely not be able to write full sentences.
Katie said, "As a mother I was devastated. All you want is for your child to be ‘normal.’ I was young and scared." On the drive home Katie recalled a peaceful feeling come over her and she turned to her husband Barry and said, "You know we don’t have to accept this for him, right? If we try and he doesn’t walk, I can accept that. But we have to try."
Jackson’s parents never treated him like he was any different from any other kid. They took him to therapy, where he was pushed to do new things, two or three times a week. "He would never cry. He was always so happy," commented Katie. By 3 years old, Jackson had defied the odds and took his first steps with his walker.
After attending preschool at the elementary school, and being around his peers, Jackson decided he didn’t want to use his walker anymore. His mom was thrilled that he made this decision all on his own.
Later Jackson decided he would like to play t-ball, and of course his parents, who had told him he could do anything he wanted, agreed. Dave Giles was Jackson’s coach and he was incredibly encouraging. He never treated Jackson like he was disabled; he was just a part of the team.
Thrilled with completing a t-ball season, Jackson asked to play soccer. This terrified his parents, but he was determined.
As the season began, the fear subsided. Coach Cody Birt took Jackson under his wing and really created a team of support. "Coach Birt is one of the most genuine, kind-hearted people I know," Katie said, "He never got frustrated when Jackson would fall or when he couldn’t keep up with the other kids."
By the second season, Jackson was a little faster, more balanced and more determined. He was able to kick the ball on the run, but still couldn’t quiet keep up with the other kids. One game in the middle of the season Coach Birt took it upon himself to ask the opposing team’s coach if his team would let Jackson score his first goal.
The other team’s coach, Shawn Beckstrom, agreed and went over to talk to his team. Beckstrom said his team’s first reaction was, "No way!" "They are very competitive kids and did not want to give the other team a free goal, until I told them Jackson’s story," said Beckstrom. After hearing the touching story, the boys rallied together to make everything look as authentic as possible for Jackson.
As Jackson ran toward the net with the ball at his feet, the opposing team would run up next to him and then playfully trip, which would allow Jackson to make it closer to the goal. With each step you could clearly see Jackson’s determination grow. After successfully scoring his first goal, he ran back down the field in a moment of pure joy.
Jackson’s team joined him in celebration. "All the boys on the team just love Jackson. He really puts his all into everything he does. Anything he lacks in skill, he more than makes up for in effort," beamed Coach Birt. The boys on each team had so much fun helping provide this moment.
Proud of what each coach had done for Jackson, Katie put the video up on YouTube. She then emailed Stephanie Ebner, executive secretary to the president of ReAL Salt Lake. Ebner was so touched by the video, she sent it to Bridget Farfal to be considered for ReAL’s "Hero Among Us" program.
Farfal said, "When Katie sent us the video, she wasn’t asking for anything, she just wanted to share her story with us. We were so touched by the inspiring video, we felt like we really needed to do something special for Jackson."
Along with his family and coach, Jackson was invited to come out to ReAL stadium. Katie said, "I had tears in my eyes as they told me they wanted to honor Jackson. To be a parent who has gone through so many struggles with your amazing child and have someone else recognize that they are as amazing as you know they are, is a feeling that you can’t fully explain."
Katie told Jackson, "You have always been our hero, but now the ReAL soccer team thinks you are a hero too!" He had the biggest smile on his face. On the way to the stadium there was a dog in the adjacent car and Jackson said, "Look mom! That dog must really like heroes because he is staring at me."
As pictures of Jackson appeared on the huge ReAL screen, his story was told to the large crowd. Jackson and his coach were given personalized jerseys and the team presented Jackson with a soccer ball signed by all the players.
"Everyone treated Jackson like a rock star that night. I want to make sure that Cody, Shawn, the ReAL soccer staff and team know how much we appreciate them," remarked Katie. She continued saying, "The whole Morgan community has been amazing. I feel blessed to be surrounded by so many remarkable people."