In most high school football games that are played across the state every Friday, coaches usually keep a “special play” up their sleeve just in case it's needed during the last minute of a game. Plays like these are usually used in desperation to try to win a game. On the night of Sept. 24, under a beautiful, dark blue sky, the Western Panthers used one of their own “special plays.” Ironically, it wasn't a double reverse, or even a half back pass. Rather it was a very simple half back up the middle play. With the outcome of the game (a lopsided Panther victory over Peru) decided long ago, this play -- called “Chad Run” --was a simple running play. No, it wasn't going to have an impact on Western winning or losing the game, but a much greater impact. A mom and sister crying tears of joy, a dad beaming with pride, fans in the stands full of goose bumps, and finally, a high school senior football player just feeling “normal” and “like one of the guys..
Jami and Aron Mendenhall, who was a standout defensive end on the great 1985 Western Panther football team, were blessed with a beautiful baby boy, Chad Leonard Mendenhall, in 1993. As a premature and undersized baby, Chad encountered some early health problems, but at the time, nothing overly startling. When Chad was still not walking at 13 months, the worries got worse. It was between Chad's first and second birthday that the Mendenhall's worst fears were realized. Chad had been diagnosed with Cerebral Palsy. Jami and Aron still get a little emotional when thinking back to those early years.
“The full impact really didn't hit us until around Chad's second-grade year,” Jami said. Jami vividly remembers a conversation between her and her son, when Chad ask the very innocent question, “Mom, why aren't I like the other kids?”
Chad had come to an early understanding that his legs did not quite work like anyone else that he knew.
Not being able to move around swiftly did not dampen Chad's love of football, however. Chad and his dad both recall when Chad's younger brother Kyle started to play flag football as a youngster. Aron, the coach, would get permission from the opposing coaches to put Chad in the game.
“I would send Chad to the offensive line, and tell him ‘Don't let any defensive players get past you’,” Aron said.
An undersized but determined Chad almost always succeeded. This was probably the first glimpse (of many more to come) to the Mendenhall parents, that Chad was not going to let Cerebral Palsy define who he was as a person.
You're going to play what?
It was 2007, a few years removed from the flag football days, and Chad was entering his freshman year at Western. Without tipping his hand, or asking permission, Chad boldly came home from school one day and told his parents that he had signed up for football. Aron and Jami had seen Chad's determination many times before, and they knew he was serious. With his parents blessing, Chad was going to realize a lifelong dream and wear the same Panther jersey his father did 22 years ago. Chad says that as a youngster, he would see his dad's 1985 “W” Western Letterman Jacket and had always dreamed of not only playing for the Panthers, but maybe even someday earning a “W” Letterman's Jacket, himself.
Many young and carefree high school football players across the country have motives for playing football that include winning awards, getting a football scholarship, or even playing at the highest level -- the NFL. Chad's motives were much different. Chad knew that his playing time would probably be minimal and there wasn't a chance of playing at the next level. So, as he describes it, he just wanted to feel “like one of the guys”.
“I just wanted to feel normal, like an average kid, playing for the school you love, bonding with teammates through thick and thin, and just having fun,” Chad said.
Chad, now a senior, is playing in his fourth straight season for the Panthers. Jami smiles when she talks about how Chad would ride his bike to practice quite often during his freshman and sophomore seasons. When you consider the fact that Chad had a dislocated knee his junior year, it is quite an accomplishment that he has stayed with it all four years. The well-spoken youngster takes it all in stride when he thinks of his four years of Panther Football.
“If there is a message that I can send, it's that no matter what obstacles we are faced with in life, it's not the obstacle that matters, but how you approach and deal with it,” Chad said. “Courage to face the obstacle, a positive attitude, heart to give it all you got, and determination to never, ever give up. These are the keys to anyone facing adversity.”
Hey little brother, I may need a push
Now back to “The Play.” With the Panthers holding an insurmountable lead late in the 4th quarter, and three tough games in a row lurking, coach Engle realized that may have been the last chance to do something special for a great kid “who deserved it.”
The coaching staff had been waiting for an opportunity for Chad to try to score a touchdown. Coach Engle calls Chad a huge inspiration to all those around him. To understand the obstacles he has had to overcome, and still be there at practice everyday, working hard, being a good team-mate, and not wanting any special treatment, truly has made Chad a great kid to coach. Coach Engle, as well as the entire Western coaching staff, preach the philosophy that the team is like a family. There was no question that this close knit group of players and coaches were all rooting for this day to come.
According to Chad's brother Kyle, not only “The Play,” but the entire drive leading to Chad's touchdown was also well-planned out. The Panther offense that was on the field was instructed to get the ball as close to the goal line as possible, but not to score. When freshman Christian Glenn ran the ball down to the 1-yard line, the stage was set. At this point, coach Marvin Boswell signaled a timeout, and in a scene directly out of a sandlot lot football game, he drew up the play right there. There were two instructions that were given: 1. little brother Kyle would be the one to hand it off, and 2. if Chad got stopped, the team was told to get behind Chad and push him over the goal line. Kyle, who says Chad has always been a huge inspiration to him, “was very nervous to execute the play because he wanted it so bad for his big brother. When Chad crossed the goal line, Kyle says it was chaos.
“Everyone was jumping and yelling, hugging and screaming,” Kyle said. “It was so awesome.”
A humble Kyle also admits that of all the touchdowns he has scored during his years, they do not come close to comparing to seeing his brother in the end zone. To mom and dad, knowing that their youngest son was the one handing it off and doing some of the pushing, made the moment even more magical.
In a way, it was symbolic, of how Chad and Kyle have helped each other throughout their life. Note: It was a legitimate score. It was not a case of the Panthers telling Peru what was going on and to let him score. Chad would not have it any other way. “Ttreat me like any other player out there,” he said.
More than a W
With Chad's senior year of football winding down, it is amazing that he also has two years of running track under his belt. All indications are that this track/football combination may be enough points to finally earn that W letterman's jacket he has dreamed of earning since he was a young kid. From any perspective, it's not the big “W” on the left side of the jacket that tells the real story. Sure, this will tell us what Chad has accomplished. But when you see the other side of the jacket with the letters “CHAD” we should all be inspired by how he accomplished it.
Courage, heart, attitude, and determination. And finally, Chad, your desire to be “average” and 'normal”? I hate to break the news to you kid, but with all the lives you continue to touch and inspire, you hurdled “average” and “normal” a long time ago.
Chad also has a younger sister Macy. Chad has a goal of someday working in the physical therapy field. Chad considers the very first time he came out of the Panther tunnel -- running with his teammates before his very first game as his biggest sports thrill.