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A wonderful match: Big San Jose State football players, small children with autism

Written by Lisa Kaufman on Saturday, April 11, 2015.

San Jose State University Football Players Mentor Kids with Autism

Taylor Odom, far left, and twin sister Jessica Odom, pose with San Jose state football players Rob Fiscalini and Jarrod Lawson last football season. The

Taylor Odom, far left, and twin sister Jessica Odom, pose with San Jose state football players Rob Fiscalini and Jarrod Lawson last football season. The twin girls from San Jose are autistic and take part in a program where San Jose State football players serve as mentors. (Courtesy Jean Novak/ Autism Tree Project Foundation

SAN JOSE -- After a recent spring football practice, San Jose State Coach Ron Caragher gathered his team around and told them about a special group of youngsters who would be coming to Spartan Stadium to hang out for a morning with any interested players.

Quarterback Joe Gray couldn't wait to volunteer.

"I took a quick shower and then signed up my name -- and the names of the other three quarterbacks," Gray said. "I joked that they had no choice."

 

SAN JOSE -- After a recent spring football practice, San Jose State Coach Ron Caragher gathered his team around and told them about a special group of youngsters who would be coming to Spartan Stadium to hang out for a morning with any interested players.

 
 

Quarterback Joe Gray couldn't wait to volunteer.

 
 

"I took a quick shower and then signed up my name -- and the names of the other three quarterbacks," Gray said. "I joked that they had no choice."

 
 

On Saturday, the school is hosting the annual Field Day youth event, where any young fan can meet Spartan athletes in different sports. But a group of 30 kids diagnosed with autism will be getting the red-carpet treatment as part of an innovative collaboration between Caragher's team, the school's Communicative Disorders and Sciences Department and the Autism Tree Project Foundation.

San Jose State Football Coach Ron Caragher and his wife, Wendy, at Spartan Stadium in San Jose, Calif., Wednesday, April 8, 2015. On Saturday, the San Jose
San Jose State Football Coach Ron Caragher and his wife, Wendy, at Spartan Stadium in San Jose, Calif., Wednesday, April 8, 2015. On Saturday, the San Jose State athletic department will be staging its annual Field Day event for youngsters 5 to 12. It is a community event where kids will get to hang out and learn a little bit about sports from Spartan athletes. About 30 families with autistic kids are being especially invited to the event since SJSU football coach Ron Caragher and his wife, Wendy, do a lot of volunteer work around autism. (Patrick Tehan/Bay Area News Group)
 
 

The grass-roots program has caught on among SJSU football players and strikes especially close to home for Gray, whose 6-year-old niece is autistic.

 
 

"These kids need to realize that they are important, will never be left behind and always will have equal opportunities," said Gray, a Los Angeles native. "I want to show them that people are there for them."

 
 

Matching players as mentors for autistic children is something Caragher and his wife, Wendy, started at the University of San Diego. And when the Bellarmine College Prep graduate came home to take the Spartans job in late 2012, Caragher brought along the idea. What's different here is that SJSU students who might one day have careers working with special-needs children also play a role -- gaining real-world insight into the often maddening and still poorly understood realm of autism.

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Most of all, kids just get to be kids as they experience things that their parents sometimes never dreamed possible.

"This is such a win-win program," said Jean Novak, a SJSU professor and speech pathologist. "Somehow, there's a bond that forms between these little kids with autism and these huge football players. It really changes all of their lives."

Laura Bonafede Odom's 11-year-old daughters Jessica and Taylor -- who are part of triplets -- have autism. They have attended football games through the program and even had two players, Rob Fiscalini and Jarrod Lawson, over for dinner and to play board games.

"It's hard to explain, but these guys are phenomenal with their ability to reach these children," said Bonafede Odom of San Jose. "My girls are thrilled to be involved."

It all started in 2008 with two moms just talking. One of Wendy Caragher's three boys attended school with Dayna Hoff's son. His diagnosis at age 2 led Hoff and her husband to establish the Autism Tree Project Foundation, a San Diego-based organization that emphasizes early screening and building awareness about a spectrum of neurodevelopment disorders characterized by communication difficulties and social impairments.

When Hoff mentioned they were staging an event on the San Diego campus, Wendy Caragher asked if her husband's team could take part.

"There was an instant connection between the players and kids," recalled Hoff, who grew up in San Jose and was a childhood friend of Bonafede Odom. "It was something organic and pure."

It also was a counterpoint to the stereotype of the self-absorbed college athlete.

"The wonderful surprise is how this becomes just as much fun for the players as it is for these kids," Wendy Caragher added. "I think we all underestimate our ability to make a difference in people's lives. Football players automatically have a platform because kids look up to them."

When Ron Caragher accepted the SJSU position, he also -- by sheer happenstance -- deepened their involvement in autism work.

"Ron could have taken a job at any school in the country," Hoff said. "Instead, he goes to the school where Jean Novak already is helping us."

Novak has done early-intervention screening for Hoff's foundation since 2006. Novak and the Caraghers joined forces to create a program that is both a teaching vehicle for students and gives autistic kids a chance to have a more normal life.

"Most people take something like going to a game for granted," Novak said. "But that is incredibly challenging for families of autistic children because of the sensory issues. They often can't do things like go to sports events, take a plane ride or even go to a restaurant. The lives of families are completely altered. But this is a way to get kids more engaged."

Through the program, children get to know players -- building a personal bond. During the season, kids accompany Novak's students to practices and eventually games, where they have the chance to cheer on their football player/mentor.

Ron Caragher recalls receiving a letter from parents who had been nervous about how their son would cope with the noise at a game.

"The fact that he was able to overcome it and look forward to the next game, it just left the father emotionally overwhelmed because before it was so out of the question," he added. "But the football player had helped bridge that gap."

Even Saturday's more low-key event can be a big step for some children. They will meet football players before the other kids arrive and receive "passports" -- blue-and-gold paper cutouts in the shape of jerseys -- from their mentors. Later, Novak's students will escort them around to stations featuring SJSU athletes from sports including basketball, volleyball and, yes, football.

"Some of these kids have never thrown a football before, and then suddenly these big athletes are working with them," said Bonafede Odom. "It's really a sight to be seen."

Throwing the football is Gray's role on the Spartans team. Saturday, he just wants make some new friends.

"I've learned that kids with autism respond differently," he said. "But the important thing is just showing them that you care."

For more information about the Autism Tree Project Foundation, visitwww.autismtreeproject.org or call 619-222-4465.

SAN JOSE STATE FIELD DAY

 
 
WHAT: SJSU athletes are hosting young fans, ages 5 to 12, at a morning of sports fun. Athletes in sports including football, basketball, tennis and volleyball will teach simple skills, play games and sign autographs.WHERE: Spartan Stadium
WHEN: 10 a.m. to noon Saturday
COST: Admission and parking is free. The first 100 children will receive a free T-shirt and all participants will receive a ticket to the SJSU baseball game against San Diego State at 1 p.m.