I ran onto the field last October just like I’d done before every football game at Canal Winchester High for two years — but this time was different. It was Senior Night, and everyone I know and love had driven from all over to be there in the stands for me. This game would determine whether or not we’d make the playoffs, which was a goal my teammates and I had been obsessing over for months. But as important as that goal was – especially in a state as football crazy as Ohio – this game was about something even bigger for me.
With about 30 seconds left in the game, we were about to take the win. That was when I realized what the student section was chanting.
“Ben! Ben! Ben! Ben!”
It was kind of an out-of-body experience. Everything had faded into the background while I was focused on the game. They wanted my coach to put me in the game — for the first time ever.
You see, I don’t normally wear a jersey and pads. Instead, I’m on the sidelines holding a notebook filled with the statistics and formations of the opposing teams. I’m hyping up the team, yelling out calls (and yes, occasionally muttering profanities at the refs). I’m doing whatever I can, however I can, to help us win. I’m not usually Ben Warner, number 91 for the Indians, but rather, I’m Ben Warner, the student manager with autism, ADHD and — to save some time — what I generally describe to people as “a bunch of other s***.”
I was born premature at 26 weeks. That’s six months. My birthday is January 7, but I was supposed to be born in April.
Once it became clear that I was going to survive after I was born, the doctors told my parents that I would probably never walk or talk.
I didn’t walk until I was three, and I didn’t talk until I was 4½. In addition to autism and ADHD, I’ve got cerebral palsy on my left side, and my vision is pure garbage. (I don’t think that’s the proper medical term for it, though.) I actually wore two pairs of contacts plus glasses when I was little. I guess that makes me … an eight eyes?
As you might have noticed, I’m the first to make fun of myself and talk about my conditions with a crude sense of humor. That’s just my way of coping.
The disease with my eyes is degenerative. One day I will go blind, I know that. That’s a fact. One of my after-school activities was learning braille and cane skills.
But the worst thing about going blind? I’ll have to go from watching football to listening to it.
I don’t know what my first words were, but I’d like to believe they were: red left Y shift to python right 382 Y stick cobra. The first conversation I remember having with someone outside of my family was with a substitute teacher when I was in the second grade. The topic was Ohio State football. That I knew — and knew well. Football was the only thing I really understood. It’s black and white, X’s and O’s, a beautiful language — and I realized I could speak it with other people. In the fall, my grandfather and I would sit in his living room and watch Ohio State play every Saturday. The first game I ever went to was Ohio State vs. Penn State in Columbus in 2010. And after that, I was all in.
It’s hard to feel normal when you’re not normal, especially as you get older. When I was 15, I always had this feeling that people who looked at any group I was part of would be thinking, One of these things is not like the other. Even though talking football came easy to me and gave me the confidence to open up to others, that was only on occasion. I still stayed in my shell, for the most part. I went to therapy for years for social skills.
One constant in my life has been watching sports – football, basketball, WWE … and during quarantine I even watched some Korean baseball. (I’ll take what I can get.) I watched sports morning and night, religiously. Watching a game of football is my biggest source of joy, and also my biggest source of comfort.
Sophomore year of high school I got to talking football with my history teacher, who also happened to be the school’s new football coach. I wanted to show off my knowledge of the game a little bit because I was in the marching band and assumed he thought I didn’t know anything about football. I was actually really down on myself at the time of our conversation. Frankly, high school sucked, and I didn’t have many friends. I felt like I had absolutely nothing to look forward to in my days. I felt depressed. I’d just gone through a surgery – I couldn’t even march in the band for a while. So I was extra happy to be talking about my favorite topic.
I must’ve impressed him because he asked if I wanted to be a student manager for a game. I jumped at the opportunity.
I was kind of nervous. I knew a couple of the guys on the team, but most of the others were strangers to me. I mean, I knew their stats, but I didn’t know them. It was toward the end of the season, too, so they were probably confused about why I was randomly joining them. When I took to the field with the team for that game, and watched the action up close … I knew I needed to find a way to stay out there for the next season.
The following year, my coach created a student-manager program and made it official.
I’d watched what felt like millions of hours of football on my own, but I discovered pretty much right away how different the game is up close. The first day of practice, I got absolutely TRUCKED by the quarterback because I wasn’t paying attention. My glasses flew off and everything. Coach immediately made a joke, and I couldn’t help but laugh. Most people would’ve run over to see if the half-blind kid was O.K., but they didn’t this time. My whole life people have felt pity toward me, and I was sooooo tired of it. But this time was different. It was like I was just another one of the guys, which was exactly what I needed — to feel normal for once.
That was my introduction to high school football. And I was in love.
My whole life people have felt pity toward me, and I was sooooo tired of it. But this time was different.
From then on, my days and nights were filled with watching film and studying our players and our opponents. Before I knew it, the guys were texting me asking about the tendencies of certain players on the other team. I’d be able to tell them that a particular guy runs a streak 20% of the time, and that another has a 61% completion rate. That wasn’t actually my job as student manager. I was supposed to be getting water and setting up equipment, but it became pretty clear to the coaches and players that I was far more interested in the details of the game. And they let me roll with it.
The way my autism and ADHD work in my head, they make me see things differently. Sometimes that feels like a problem, but in this case, it was like seeing things differently made me … really good at this job. I notice really small details, and then turn those details into numbers and stats pretty quickly. I’m wired to break things down and construe every angle and possibility.
I started to build my life back up around football, and suddenly things didn’t feel so s***ty anymore. I’ve often thought to myself that my job gave me a reason to live. All the friends I have today are from football.
I know I’m not necessarily one of the players, but I do have something in common with all of them. We live for the game. I think people who don’t understand sports and why people love them might think the whole concept is something silly or immature. But what’s silly about connecting? What’s immature about a kid who had struggled to find a purpose in life finally finding one because of sports?
Even though I wasn’t on the field, I took our performance personally. When we missed the playoffs my junior year, I was crushed. But as bad as the losses felt, when we won, it was exhilarating. Just being able to experience those emotions as part of a team is something I’d never gotten to do before.
So when everything came together on Senior Night, and the entire crowd was chanting my name … I really couldn’t believe it was happening to me — this kid that doctors had said wouldn’t walk or talk. The kid who was always on the sidelines. The kid who didn’t leave the hospital until he was almost a year old.
I watched the clock slowly run out second by second, anxiously ready to run out onto the field at a moment’s notice.
But then time actually did run out.
I never got in the game.
For the first time after a big win, I was crushed. There was nothing more I wanted than to get out on the field for once in my life. And everyone there knew it. I saw that night as validation that I was one of them, that I belonged with them. That night was about proving to myself that I deserved to wear that jersey, even though deep down I felt I didn’t.
After the game, my best friend on the team slept over at my house to make sure I was O.K. and that I had someone to talk to. My other teammates and coaches checked in on me over the next few days, too. And slowly the feeling of betrayal I felt at the hands of the game that I had built my life on went away. Around that Sunday afternoon I realized something … even though I was feeling like I didn’t belong, the guys on my team were showing me that I did.
I know in the beginning of this letter I said that the student section was chanting my name on Senior Night, but the cheers for me to go in the game weren’t just coming from the bleachers. All the guys on my team were motioning for Coach to put me in, too, knowing what that moment would mean to me.
I guess in the end, the game pities nobody. That’s part of what I love about it. And my coach didn’t pity me either, which is part of why I respect him.
The fact that I had teammates who tried to lift me up and friends who were truly there for me after that night … that’s what I’ll remember about Senior Night. I had thought it was the game of football that had changed my life, but I realize now it was actually the brotherhood that came along with it that I loved so much.
From the day I was born, nothing in my life has gone according to plan. A lot of good things have happened when no one expected them to, but there was still a lot to overcome. I know I’m talking like I’m at the end of some era … but I kind of am.
I graduated high school this past May. I’m now part of this new group of graduates that the world will never forget: the class of 2020. Seems about right for me.
I’m starting college next week at Columbus State. This new environment is going to be a challenge for me, but now it’s one that I’ll go after with a little more confidence than I would have a few years ago. I’ll also still be able to continue working with my high school football team. I’m just crossing my fingers that we’ll have a season.
I don’t know when we’ll be watching the NFL or college football again. But this pause has really pushed me to turn back and notice just how much the hundreds — no, probably thousands — of games I’ve watched in the last 18 years have completely shaped my life.
So thank you, football. You gave me a purpose, and so many experiences I never thought I’d get. Now it’s my turn to give you my all by doing my part to keep the spirit of the game alive in 2020.
And as much as this is my love letter to football, it’s also a letter to any young person who has felt isolated or is feeling isolated right now.
I know it’s easier said than done, but try to find people who are interested in the same things you’re interested in. And then just talk to them.
If it doesn’t work out, you’ll be no worse off than you are now. But if it does, well … your whole life can change.
For the better.