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Blindness Not Enough To Sideline California Teen

Nov 6, 2011
Originally published on December 20, 2012 11:19 am

It's afternoon practice for the junior varsity football team at Vasquez High in Acton, Calif. A high desert wind somersaults a discarded paper plate across the line of scrimmage just before it becomes a pile of white jerseys and purple helmets.

"You were offsides," the coach yells after blowing his whistle.

The players dust themselves off and line up for the next play. At center, is Taylor, a lean 15-year-old. His quarterback, Bryan McCauley, is a few yards behind him in shotgun formation.

"Down, set, hike, good," Bryan says.

That "good" from the quarterback is valuable information for Howell, who is blind. It means his aim was dead on.

"Breaking out of the huddle after he calls the play, it's up to my guards to get me up to the line of scrimmage, make sure that I know where the ball is," he says.

On the field the tackles tell him what to do and if Taylor has a question he goes to Bryan.

"I make sure he's straight so he doesn't snap the ball crooked," he says.

Head coach Tim Jorgensen says initially he played Taylor as center during the point after touchdown.

"Cause that's somewhat a protected position you can't hit him because their heads are down and he's an excellent snapper," he says. "And then about a couple games in, the coach says 'Well, he wants to play regular,' and I said, 'Put him in there.'"

During the water break, Taylor takes off his helmet. He has short, light brown hair and a no-nonsense demeanor. But when asked about the practice and if he took any hits, his face lights up.

"I've taken a few hard ones," he says. "It happens. It's part of football."

You take the hits as they come, Taylor says. That's something he learned at a very young age. He was just a toddler when he was diagnosed with cancer. After a year of radiation and chemotherapy, he lost both of his eyes.

"We've never discouraged him from doing anything he's wanted to do," says his mom, Jennifer Oudekerk

She says her son learned the alphabet in Braille when he was in preschool.

"He's always been a little ahead of his time, which has been amazing," she says. "He is a daily inspiration for me."

Teammate Hector Hernandez remembers when Taylor told him he was going to try out for football.

"And I like, I didn't think he'd actually do it," he says. "He's pretty tough, he gets banged up every day and he's still hanging in there."

The players don't cut their center any slack, but they're watching out for him all the time, whether it's a gentle tug on his jersey or verbal cues — a step forward, a little to the right.

It's more than two hours into practice. The sun is setting behind the hills and those white jerseys are more a shade of dirt and grass now. Taylor says he plans to try out for varsity next year and has talked to Jorgensen about playing college ball.

"I'm realistic with him. I said, 'Well you know you're going to grow, and ... you gotta lift weights to get your strength up and as we get into it, we'll see,'" Jorgensen says. "We'll take it one step at a time, one year at a time."

That was good enough for Taylor. For now he's focused on winning the next game.

"That's a feeling you can't describe, you know, after you've come off the field knowing that you helped your team just win," Taylor says.

A whistle blows and, after the dust settles, a tall guard with wide shoulders gently guides his center back to the offensive line.

Copyright 2012 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

AUDIE CORNISH, host: Playing high school football is a rite of passage for many American teens. In Southern California, the game has taught one sophomore and his teammates that in life, there are all kinds of victories.

Gloria Hillard brings us the story from the small town of Acton.

(SOUNDBITE OF FOOTBALL PRACTICE)

GLORIA HILLARD: It's afternoon practice for Vasquez High's junior varsity football team. A high desert wind somersaults a discarded paper plate across the line of scrimmage, just before it becomes a pile of white jersey and purple helmets.

(SOUNDBITE OF FOOTBALL PRACTICE AND A WHISTLE)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: You're off-side.

HILLARD: The players dust themselves off and line up for the next play. At center, is Taylor Howell, a lean 15-year-old. His quarterback is a few yards behind him in shotgun formation.

BRYAN MCCAULEY: Down, set, hike. Good.

HILLARD: That good from the quarterback is valuable information for Taylor. It means his aim was dead on. Taylor, the team's center, is blind.

TAYLOR HOWELL: You know, breaking out of the huddle after he calls the play, you know, it's up to my guards to get me up to the line of scrimmage, make sure that I know where the ball is.

MCCAULEY: Down, set, hut.

HILLARD: Quarterback Bryan McCauley takes it from there.

MCCAULEY: On the field the tackles tell him what to do and, like, if he has a question he comes to me and I make sure he's straight so he doesn't snap the ball crooked.

HILLARD: Head coach Tim Jorgensen says initially he played Taylor as center just for extra point.

TIM JORGENSEN: Because that's somewhat a protected position; you can't hit him because their heads are down and he's an excellent snapper. And then about a couple games in, the coach says well, he wants to play regular, and I said, put him in there.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Ready? Get back.

HILLARD: During the water break, Taylor takes off his helmet. He has short, light brown hair and a no-nonsense demeanor. But when I ask him about the practice, if he took any hits, his face lights up.

MCCAULEY: I've taken a few hard ones. You know, it happens. It's part of football."

HILLARD: You take the hits as they come, Taylor says, something he learned at a very young age. He was just a toddler when he was diagnosed with cancer. After a year of radiation and chemotherapy, he lost both of his eyes.

JENNIFER OUDEKERK: We've never discouraged him from doing anything he's wanted to do.

HILLARD: Taylor's mom, Jennifer Oudekerk, says her son learned the alphabet in Braille when he was just in preschool.

OUDEKERK: He's always been a little ahead of his time, which has been amazing. He is a daily inspiration for me.

HILLARD: Teammate Hector Hernandez remembers when Taylor told him he was going to try out for football.

HECTOR HERNANDEZ: And I like, I didn't think he'd actually do it, but, like, he's pretty tough. Like, he gets banged up every day and, like, he's still hanging in there.

HILLARD: The players don't cut their center any slack, but they're watching out for him all the time, whether it's a gentle tug on his jersey or verbal cues - a step forward, a little to the right.

(SOUNDBITE OF FOOTBALL PRACTICE)

HILLARD: It's more than two hours into practice. The sun is setting behind the hills and those white jerseys are more a shade of dirt and grass now. Taylor says he plans to try out for varsity next year and has talked to Coach Jorgensen about playing college ball.

JORGENSEN: And I'm realistic with him. I said, 'Well you know you're going to grow, and as you get strong, and you've got to lift weights to get your strength up and as we get into that, we'll see. We'll take it one step at a time, one year at a time.

HILLARD: That's good enough for Taylor. For now he's focused on winning the next game.

HOWELL: That's a feeling you can't describe, you know, after you've come off the field knowing that you helped your team just win or, you know?

(SOUNDBITE OF WHISTLE BLOWING)

HILLARD: After the dust settles, a tall guard with wide shoulders gently guides his center back to the offensive line. For NPR News, I'm Gloria Hillard.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

CORNISH: You are listening to WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.