Sidelined by Spina Bifida, Daniel Rako finds a place with the New Albany High School football team
Daniel leads the Eagles onto the field before a game photos by Steve Dove/Jim George Photography
Daniel Rako led the New Albany High School football team on to the field one last time on Nov. 22. Players pushed the sophomore’s wheelchair on to the artificial turf prior to a 35-28 loss to Zanesville in a Division II regional final at DeSales High School. Although he never played a down for the Eagles, Daniel says being a part of New Albany’s 11-2 season was a life-changing event. “I’d give anything to play,” Daniel says. “I know I can’t but it’s still fun to be out there and be a part of this team.” Daniel, who was born with Spina Bifida, joins freshman Sam Hill and sixth grader Matthew Thomas as managers for the Eagles. All three are part of the football team’s partnership with the Special Needs Program. Hill and Rako were both chosen as the team’s practice players of the week in the days before the Zanesville game. “Daniel is what our program is all about. It takes a lot of other people besides the starters to make up a football team,” New Albany defensive coordinator Matt “Bubba” Kidwell says. “Daniel will never make a tackle for this team. He’ll never score a touchdown, throw a block or catch or throw a pass. But he’s just as important as our quarterback or anyone else on this team.” Kidwell’s only partially correct. While he’ll never compete for the team, Daniel was on the receiving end of his first and, his mother Jill Rako hopes, only block on the first day of two-a-day practices last August. When a play went awry during the practice, senior Ryan Wilson, a 200-pound all-district lineman and one of Daniel’s friends on the team, plowed into the manager and toppled his wheelchair. Onlookers gasped in horror until they saw the smile of exhilaration on Daniel’s face. “Daniel likes to be in the mix,” Eagles head coach Pat Samanich says. “We had to scoop it all back together but he was up and ready to go for the next play. I was like ‘Oh no’ but he was like ‘Yeah!’ He wasn’t going to lay there and be soft. That’s for sure.” “The first thing that went through my mind was ‘Oww.’ Then I made sure I was OK,” Daniel says before adding with a grin. “(After the hit) I felt I was like one of the guys.” Daniel tried to keep the incident from his family. Throughout the day, Jill kept tabs on her son. Each time she heard the same glowing report from her son: “Mom, I’m having so much fun.” She didn’t worry about him until she got home and checked the phone messages. “There’s a phone message (from offensive coordinator Brian Finn) saying ‘Hey Jill, I just wanted to check in and see how Daniel was feeling. I’m so sorry. I feel so sick about what happened.’” Jill says. “I was like ‘Oh really?’ “Daniel didn’t tell us because he thought ‘Mom’s going to freak out. She’s never going to let me come back.’” Jill wasn’t being overprotective. The son of Dan and Jill Rako underwent 21 surgeries in 16 years, including 11 before his first birthday. Daniel had just gone through another extensive round of surgeries in the last three years including two to correct his spine which required him to be in a body cast for six months. In the spring of 2012, Daniel had another setback. One of the screws in his spine had come loose. “If you look at Daniel’s X-rays, it looks like he’s being held together with bubble gum and chicken wire,” Jill says. “The doctor came in with an ashen face, saying ‘We have a problem and I don’t know how to fix it.’ “Imagine being nine months into a 12-month healing process and the clock starts over. I didn’t rest until after the second nine-month checkup was over and we got the all clear.” Once Daniel was cleared, Kidwell and Finn began to encourage him to compete for the Special Olympics. Daniel had tried sled hockey and tee ball in the past without much success. However as a freshman, he began competing intensely, first in basketball and then in track and field. At the Special Olympics’ state track and field championships, he placed second in the softball throw and third in the 25 meters. Kidwell and Finn petitioned the school so Daniel could receive a letter jacket for his achievements in the Special Olympics. In order to receive a varsity letter, a player has to be nominated by a coach and write a letter about what it means to be an athlete at New Albany before athletic director Kevin Reed can approve it. “I can’t believe my son has a letter jacket,” Jill says. “He got the jacket in September when it was hotter than you know what. He couldn’t wait to wear it.” Samanich, who was hired as the head coach last spring after spending eight years as an assistant coach with the program, says he wanted a program built on “selfless service to others.” The staff encouraged players to get involved with programs like Special Olympics. Many of the players who serve as helpers with the Special Olympics struck up a friendship with Daniel and encouraged him to become a manager with the team. Daniel took his role with the team very seriously. His smartphone is filled with game films and he constantly studied scouting reports of upcoming opponents. As a typical week drew closer and closer to Game Day, his face becomes more drawn and intense. When he was asked to help keep players behind the sideline markers, he wasn’t above running over players’ toes to make sure they were behind the lines. Defensive end George Kalec says Daniel is “one of the most enthusiastic kids I’ve ever met.” “On Game Day, he’s in there with us, getting us all hyped up,” Kalec says. “I’ve never seen him more hyper (than he was before the Eagles’ 26-22 win over undefeated Mansfield on Nov. 15). He was more into it than some of the players.” “Before every game, our coaches tell us to choose someone to play for and a lot of the time people choose Daniel,” linebacker Victor Chamberlain says. “People always take the time to listen to what he has to say. If we’re not doing things up to par, he’ll let us know.” While Daniel never played a down for the Eagles, Samanich says he definitely left his thumb print on New Albany’s season. “Every team has a personality and Daniel is a huge part of ours,” Samanich says. “He creates our identity. He’s a fiery kid and so much fun to be around.” “They see the energy he has for the game. They realize Daniel’s not able to play the game so it makes them appreciate what they are able to do,” Kidwell adds. “They know Daniel would give anything to be out there on the field. He has done a lot more for this team than our team has done for him.”
Daniel on the sideline during New Albany’s Oct. 4 game with Delaware

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