September 4, 2009

Part of the team: Teenager’s approach to life creates magical bond connecting his family, friends and teammates

Since their freshman year at Bishop Chatard High School in Indianapolis, Will Kuhn, left, and Mike Goetz have been good friends. The bond between the two seniors is just one of the many special relationships that have developed from Will becoming part of the school’s football team as a manager, and being an inspiration as he moves forward through life despite muscular dystrophy. (Submitted photo by Kelly Lucas)

Since their freshman year at Bishop Chatard High School in Indianapolis, Will Kuhn, left, and Mike Goetz have been good friends. The bond between the two seniors is just one of the many special relationships that have developed from Will becoming part of the school’s football team as a manager, and being an inspiration as he moves forward through life despite muscular dystrophy. (Submitted photo by Kelly Lucas)

By John Shaughnessy

This story is about teenagers—their strength, their dreams, their vulnerability, and their desire to belong to and contribute to something bigger than themselves.

It’s also a story about parents—how they love their children, worry about them, bleed for them, cheer for them and hope they will learn their worth in the world.

This story is also about friends and teammates—how they look out for each other, extend their hands and their hearts to each other, and how, as they come together to pursue wins and championships, they sometimes grasp a greater success: becoming part of a group that not only strives to reach its potential as athletes who dare to dream, but also as people who dare to care, especially about one another.

It’s a story that could take place in any Catholic high school in the archdiocese, and in any sport being played during this fall season—volleyball, football, soccer, cross country, tennis and golf.

Yet this story begins on a football field on a Friday night beneath the glow of a stadium’s lights.

The game has ended, and the football players and coaches of Bishop Chatard High School in Indianapolis start to join together on the field, where they will eventually kneel in the grass and the dirt together to offer a prayer of thanks for having had the opportunity to play and compete.

From the Bishop Chatard sideline, Will Kuhn directs his motorized scooter toward that area of the field, his eyes looking up at the backs of several of his teammates who tower above him and walk ahead of him in their uniforms and helmets.

Will is a member of the team as a manager, a youth who has a passion for football and a nearly lifelong dream of wanting to play the game. But he was diagnosed in kindergarten with Duchenne’s muscular dystrophy, a degenerative and progressive form of the disease that causes people to lose the use of their muscles—starting in the legs, then the arms, then the lungs and the heart. It’s a form of muscular dystrophy that also comes with a shortened life expectancy.

As a boy, Will could walk and even run. By 13, those movements were no longer possible. At this point in his life, the disease has robbed him of the physical ability to do basic things that most people take for granted.

“He can’t walk, he can’t brush his teeth, he can’t comb his hair, he can’t get out of bed by himself,” says his mother, Kathy Kuhn. “Yet it doesn’t really keep him from doing the things he wants to do, the things that normal seniors in high school do.”

As Will steers his scooter toward the middle of the field, Kathy Kuhn watches him with her usual motherly mixture of great pride and constant concern. She has been cheering for the oldest of her four children all his life, drawing strength from the way he keeps moving forward against incredible odds. Her nickname for Will is “Superman” because, she explains, he is the strongest person she has ever met.

She also knows his deepest desires, which include a desire that nearly every teenager has—to be included as part of a group. For Will, that desire has always been a measuring stick for feeling “normal,” a feeling that has been a reality for him ever since he became a part of the Bishop Chatard football program.

Kathy Kuhn still remembers the phone call that she received from Bishop Chatard’s head freshman football coach, Rob Doyle, during the summer before Will entered high school. Doyle had heard that Will had been a manager for the football team at St. Luke the Evangelist Parish in Indianapolis, and wanted to know if he would like to help with the freshman team. Three years later, that invitation from Doyle still means so much to Will’s mom.

So does the conversation that she had with the school’s varsity head coach, Vince Lorenzano, during the second football game of Will’s sophomore year—when Will first became a manager for the varsity team.

At halftime, Lorenzano walked by the stands where Kathy Kuhn was sitting, wanting to talk to her about Will. As Kathy recalls it, Lorenzano yelled to her, “Hey, Kuhn, he doesn’t want to go to the football game with his mommy.”

“I had taken William to the game because he needed his scooter to get around,” Kathy recalls. “So I said to Coach Lorenzano, ‘Well, Coach, he can’t walk. How else is he going to get here?’ And Coach said, ‘We’re football players. We’ll get him and the scooter on the bus.’

“The following Friday, Ricky Rivelli [a football player who graduated in 2009] piggy-backed William onto the bus, two or three boys lifted his scooter and put it into the luggage compartment with all the football equipment, and they went off. For William, he was part of the team.

“A couple of weeks after that, I went up to Coach and said, ‘Thank you so much. You can’t imagine what this is doing for William.’ And Coach looked at me and said, ‘It’s not about what we are doing for him. It’s what he does for us.’

“I walked away crying.”

Lorenzano doesn’t mention those stories when he is asked about any moments that stand out from Will being part of the football program. Instead, he talks about Will often leading the stretching part of practice for the players by blowing a whistle to start each drill. He also mentions Will being out on the field through the heat, rain, mud, cold and snow—elements that are all part of a football season.

“He’s one of those guys who doesn’t let anything stop him from living life,” Lorenzano says. “His attitude is the key. No matter how he feels, he’s out there.

“Part of what we stress as a program is to stay even-keel. We don’t live in a perfect world. We don’t have perfect bodies. But we deal with it. Will deals with it. He does everything we do. For guys who take the time to understand the situation—and I think our players do—they appreciate what they have. I know those kids love him and would do anything for him.”

Count Mike Goetz as a loyal member of the Will Kuhn fan club. A fellow senior and a football player, Mike has a quiet, respectful attitude toward adults and a tough, give-everything-you-have approach to playing football. He is the one who now piggy-backs Will on and off the bus on game nights.

“We’ve been friends since freshman year,” Mike says. “I really didn’t know what to expect at first. Meeting Will and seeing what he’s about has been a great experience for us. He’s just a normal kid to us. From Will, I’ve learned that when you’re put in a rough situation, you have to make the best of it. It’s all about brotherhood and looking out for each other. When we go on the field together, it’s like a magical bond.”

It’s the magic that teams and teenagers can know when they reach beyond themselves and when they reach out to each other. It’s the magic that glows on Will’s face and in his eyes when he talks about being part of one of those teams.

“Football has been a passion for me for many years,” says Will, whose father, Walt Kuhn, is also a major influence in his life. “When I was growing up, I really wanted to play football. I wish I could play. I just enjoy the way you work together as a team.

“When I came to Chatard, it was a real life-changing experience. The seniors don’t just hang out with the seniors. We hang out with the underclassmen, too. I know I’m in good hands with the football team. They are my extra helpers at school. It makes my parents feel good. It makes me feel good.”

One of his favorite moments from his senior season so far occurred when the 26 seniors on the team spent time together at a lake house for a pre-season bonding experience. For Will, it was an opportunity to get to know his teammates away from the sport that unites them.

“It was really cool. I got to find out a little more what people were thinking about,” Will says. “We were hanging out by the fire one night, and we all had to share one thing that we wanted to see happen for the season. I said, ‘We need to get everyone motivated on the sidelines. We need to get excited. We need to let the underclassmen know what Chatard football is about.’ It’s about teamwork and great leaders.”

The scene shifts from friends talking around a fire back to the football field on that Friday night under the glowing lights when Will leads his motorized scooter from the sidelines toward the area where the players and coaches are getting ready to say a post-game prayer of thanks.

On the way there, Will’s scooter gets stuck in a rut on the field—a common occurrence during the season when the combination of rain, mud and cleats can create grooves and dips on a field.

Watching from the stands, Kathy Kuhn used to worry about Will in such moments. But the history of four high school football seasons has taught her to leave behind those worries.

A moment later, one of Will’s teammates moves behind his scooter and pushes it forward, out of the rut. He continues pushing Will to where the rest of the team kneels in the grass and the dirt. Neither Will nor his teammate give any indication that what just happened is anything special. They both share this belief: It’s what teammates who have experienced and endured so much together just naturally do for each other.

Finally, the team begins to pray together beneath the stadium’s glowing lights. For Will, it’s an extension of a prayer he makes daily.

“I thank God every day that I have the chance to go out on that field,” Will says later. “It’s an amazing feeling. It’s just a great feeling to be on the field, to be a part of the team.”

A prayer has been answered. †

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