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Autistic Teen Unifies Santiago



Published: Oct. 10, 2014 Updated: Oct. 12, 2014 2:21 p.m.

Corona Santiago High School freshman Caleb Stevenson scored a touchdown on a 3-yard run late in the Sharks 35-7 victory over Big VIII rival Corona in a lower level game Thursday.

A considerable feat if you know the details of Stevenson’s life story. The touchdown and the effort and commitment it took to make it happen are what’s right with sports.

Competition is how we measure athletic success but sports are so much more. Sports are a great tool to engage student-athletes in an activity to teach life skills, including hard work, determination and teamwork. Sports also allow all to see that we each (in some degree) share the frailties that make us human.

It’s a teaching concept not lost on first-year Santiago freshman coach Jaz Myerly.

This season, his fourth with the Sharks, Myerly was asked to take over as the freshman coach. He accepted the position and shortly afterward was approached by a friend from the Junior All-American Football League about Caleb.

The friend said that Caleb was autistic but had played on the Chargers’ Midget Division squad his eighth-grade season.

Myerly knew the Sharks would keep anyone who fully participated on the roster, and he agreed to take Caleb despite not knowing exactly what that would entail.

What Myerly quickly found out was that, although Stevenson has mild to moderate autism, he was a unifying force within the team. He is a well-liked kid that came to practice, did the drills and conditioning, and did it without protest.

“He just always seems to take the best out of everything,” Santiago freshman linebacker Johnathon Zamora said. “He comes out here just wanting to play, and I think that is what’s so cool about him.”

Last week, after a 5-0 start to their season and a bye week before starting league play, Myerly felt compelled to get Stevenson involved in game action and brought the idea up to his coaches and players.

“Football is obviously about wins and losses,” Myerly said. “But I’m all about making memories that these kids will talk about forever.

“Caleb had yet to see the field in a game this season despite the hard work and dedication he put in each week at practice, and I was determined we were going to change that.”

His players agreed, asking not to get any favors and just do it and get it their way – a real touchdown.

“When I suggested we get Stevenson a touchdown, the team jumped at the chance,” Myerly said.

They went to work designing a play, figuring out the personnel and practicing it. Stevenson was at the center of activity for the week of preparation leading up to Thursday’s game.

The play – called “Caleb” – was a double tight end set with the 10 biggest and best players in the lineup to block as Stevenson attempted to score.

His coaches and teammates at Santiago have been a great help this season, but Caleb has had a lot of other help to get to where he is today.

When his parents – Heather and Mark – first found out about his diagnosis, the advice at the time was make him comfortable and let him be.

The Stevensons moved from North Carolina to California to seek the best treatment available. They found CARD – the Center for Autism and Related Disorders – and went to work helping their son. Mark Stevenson said that many at CARD have been instrumental in his son’s growth in mental acuity over the years.

Many others, including friends and family, have had a hand helping the Stevensons get Caleb to the place he’s at today. One of those is Jason David, who played six seasons in the NFL and was on the Indianapolis Colts Super Bowl championship team. He is a former client of the Stevenson real estate team.

David volunteered time to work with Caleb. Mark Stevenson says the experience has been not only helpful, but a great adventure for David.

“With as involved as his parents are,” David said, “it makes it real easy for others to get involved in his life.”

Caleb’s first scoring opportunity came midway through the fourth quarter of Thursday’s game. Santiago had the ball on Corona’s 9-yard line when the Caleb package was sent onto the field.

Quarterback Brice Turang handed off to Caleb, but Corona had the play covered. As defenders approached, Caleb ran backward and out of bounds for a 6-yard loss. No worries, Caleb skipped back to the sidelines. You could tell, he was having the time of his life.

Caleb was to get one more chance – in the fifth quarter, extra time granted to get backups into games. This time, with the ball at the 3, the Sharks ran “Caleb” again and this time he took the ball and ran up the middle into the end zone.

When the referees signaled a touchdown, the crowd went wild and the players rushed to Caleb. A celebration began as teammates mobbed him in the end zone and put him on their shoulders, football in hand.

Once back on his feet, Stevenson skipped all the way to the sideline to cheers and well wishes. On the sideline, he paced the bench area as he held the ball up high, repeating, “I’m the man.”

During postgame comments to his team, Myerly summed up the day appropriately.

“At this point in the season, we finally feel like a complete family,” Myerly said. “It’s one thing to just look out for yourself, but to be able to sacrifice yourself for the benefit of somebody else says a lot about each of you and our program.

“And, that was awesome to see.”

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