Nov. 14, 2014
By Renee Peggs
Two University of Notre Dame football players.
One child's life changed forever.
Like most 11-year old boys, Jake Herzig plays video games, likes sports and does well in school. He has aspirations of attending Notre Dame someday.
What sets Jake apart is autism.
"When you have a child with autism," says Jake's mother, Alyson, "you kind of always know he is a little bit different than other children. Jacob has had a very up-and-down life. He's struggled with relationships with other kids, he over-analyzes everything, he is very shy and not sure how to react to certain situations. Social interactions are much more difficult for him than for other people because he doesn't pick up on the nuances of social involvement with others."
The American Psychiatric Association's Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM-V) defines autism as a spectrum disorder, meaning symptoms may fall anywhere along a specified range of severity or affect. Delays or abnormal functioning in social interaction, communicative language, symbolic or imaginative play, or any combination of these, characterize autism.
In April 2014, the Herzigs received the official diagnosis that Jake suffered from autism. Prior to that, the family grappled with trying to understand Jake's idiosyncrasies and make appropriate decisions for him. While he's only in fifth grade, Jake has attended four different schools. He's tried several sports but usually with very little success or satisfaction. He struggles with changes to his routine. Loud noises startle and frighten him. He has difficulty relating to his peers.
Alyson and her husband, John, have always encouraged Jake to pursue the things in which he's interested.
"We never pressured him into sports but he's built just like his dad, who was a high school all-state football player," Alyson says. "We tried soccer, and that was a disaster. Basketball involved too much running up and down the court. The buzzers really bothered him and hand-eye coordination is not his thing.
"We thought sports would help him build camaraderie with the other boys and have things to talk about with them. It could be a jumping-off point and be something to help him relate better to them. We knew Jake would never be the next best athlete but he seemed to show a persistent interest in football. He wanted to be just like his dad," she says with maternal pride.
In 2012, John and Alyson signed Jake up for summer football camp at Notre Dame. At age 8, Jake was one of the youngest participants in the camp. While other parents stood on the sidelines taking pictures as their sons developed new skills, the Herzigs stood on the sidelines watching their son becoming increasingly overwhelmed, almost to the point of paralysis.
The three-day camp is attended by hundreds of young boys each year. The pace is fast, the whistles are loud, the Fighting Irish football players are big.
"Jake was so intimidated by the whole thing," Alyson says. "A child with autism has difficulty with a change in routine. He would barely have time to get adjusted to what was going on before a buzzer or a horn blared and then he had to move on to something new all over again. To him, the Notre Dame football players were big professional stars and that made them untouchable and unapproachable. So the first year was a disaster."
John and Alyson were surprised then to learn Jake actually wanted to go back the following summer. The end result was the same.
"He was so overwhelmed by how many kids there were," says Alyson. "Even though his dad took the three days off work again to go with him and help him, he was just lost." But something changed all that just a few months ago. Jake was able to attend his third Notre Dame football camp, successfully interacted with players and coaches and felt comfortable enough to be there without his dad.
Elmer, a sophomore offensive lineman for the Irish, met John Herzig earlier this year at a Notre Dame Career Fair. The two struck up a conversation and realized that Herzig had attended college in Midland, Michigan, which is Elmer's hometown. When Jake expressed his desire to attend football camp again, John reached out to Elmer for a helping hand.
Alyson discloses that receiving Jake's diagnosis last spring was very difficult for her husband to accept. When John told her that he had "explained Jake" to Elmer, Alyson was shocked.
"That John had been comfortable enough to share that, after how hard he took the diagnosis... that was a really special moment," she says.
John explained to Elmer that Jake wanted to attend camp again, but that he always had been over-stimulated and overwhelmed by it. After talking, the Herzigs invited Elmer to their home for hamburgers, with the thought that perhaps getting to know a "real life Notre Dame football player" might help Jake feel comfortable before camp started. Elmer accepted the invitation and went a step further, inviting his roommate, wide receiver Corey Robinson.
"I was happy to go," says Robinson. "As a Notre Dame football player, this is what we do. We reach out, we take time for others, we get out of ourselves. I grew up this way and this is absolutely just part of who I am."
Before Elmer and Robinson arrived, John and Alyson role-played with Jake, in a kind of advance preparation that helps him feel more comfortable and less panicky. Alyson relates that Jake was very excited about their visitors and kicked things off by asking politely, "Excuse me, would you like to see my room?"
Elmer and Robinson took it from there, followed Jake right in and sat down to play video games.
"It was one of those mom-moments where you don't want to cry," says Alyson, holding back tears as she shares this recollection. "For these two guys to do this for my son, to show the kind of maturity to make him feel special and comfortable at the same time... I don't know of any other college where football players would do this.
"When you look around the country at what's going on with other football players at other schools, I can't imagine this happening with anyone but Notre Dame athletes. These two guys didn't expect anything in return. It was a purely selfless act on their part, giving time to a child they had never met, time they probably could have spent studying or hanging out with their friends, but they willingly offered that time to my child."
Alyson indicated to Elmer and Robinson that Jake loves history, so they asked him lots of history questions during dinner. They sat down and petted his dogs.
"Jacob is very in tune with his animals so he thought it was really neat that they were interested in his pets," she says.
When she heard Jake ask his new buddies if they could go outside and play catch, Alyson's heart sank. "Historically Jake is more of a tackler," she says. "He's a big kid. He's not the one to want to catch the ball. I thought, oh no, he's going to drop the ball and be embarrassed and this is going to be the end."
In her mind, Alyson recalled the movie Billy Madison, where the little boy wets his pants and Adam Sandler dumps water on himself to make the boy feel like it wasn't any big deal.
"This was one of those moments," she says with a laugh. "Right off the bat, both Steve and Corey dropped the football on purpose. Jake was incredulous that "the big guys" sometimes drop the ball too and that helped him feel safe and more confident in his own abilities. They were astute enough to realize that. They weren't trying to showboat or show off, just being really nice guys. I really wish more people were like them. That whole evening was incredible."
So Jake went to his third Notre Dame football camp. The horns and whistles were still difficult, yet he interacted, participated, felt confident. He talked to all the players. He asked for their autographs. A year earlier, he had been so overwhelmed that he asked for maybe two autographs and then he was done. This year he got them all," Alyson says proudly.
"It was like Notre Dame football adopted Jake into their family. For a child who has struggled so hard to find a place and a sense of community, these kids gave him that. It didn't take a lot of effort but it showed class and empathy that I cannot imagine would be present at that level among too many other collegiate football players."
Alyson asked Elmer and Robinson if she could write about the experience on her blog. "Initially I didn't even post their names because I wanted to highlight what the University has taught and instilled in its athletes, how different they are than athletes at other colleges because of what Notre Dame expects out of all its students," she says.
Eventually, USA Today picked up the Herzigs' story and contacted Alyson for an interview.
Prior to that, Jake had not communicated with anybody about the fact that he has autism. His mother says he was very firm about not wanting to tell the kids at his school or their parents, and John and Alyson supported him in that choice.
"This experience with Steve and Corey changed all that," Alyson says. "He has opened up and shared about his diagnosis and what it means. Other kids in his class thought it was so cool that he had hung out with Notre Dame football players at his house, and it gave Jake this platform to explain about himself, to feel comfortable, to have a way of connecting and relating to other children. Now they ask for his autograph! The parents of the other kids found out without it being whispered about behind our backs. It allowed us to have meaningful conversations.
"We could not have asked for a more perfect way to help our child, who has always felt inferior to his peers. For Jake now to be accepted and included all because two guys came and had a hamburger at our house. They can't possibly understand what that simple act has done for my son and my family."
Jake himself related that his favorite thing about hanging out with Steve and Corey was talking to them. "They were really nice, and easy to talk to," he says softly but without hesitation.
It doesn't get much better than that.