Place of acceptance for Bridge, Aker, McGough
For Matt Bridge, Derek Aker and Chris McGough, the football field is a place of acceptance.
Their learning disabilities disappear and they can just be themselves.
The three have been welcomed by high school football coaches and players to be part of the sports experience, including tonight's first-round WPIAL playoff games.
Bridge is an assistant at Pine-Richland. Aker is an assistant at Gateway. McGough is a student manager for West Allegheny.
"Matt brightens the mood every day he is here," Pine-Richland quarterback Spencer Whipple said. "It means a lot to us to have him around. He never complains about being out on the field in bad weather. He wants to be with us."
Being a member of a sports team is about more than scoring touchdowns for these young men. It is about fitting in and having a purpose. They gain valuable experiences in a sport that requires everyone to work together.
Bridge, 19, was born with a developmental delay. He was in seventh grade when he decided he wanted to play football. He was big enough to be a lineman but wasn't able to protect himself in a stance, so coach Clair Altemus found a spot for Bridge at kicker.
Altemus recalled a time when Bridge wore a kicking shoe that was too tight, but he never complained.
"You can tell he loves this sport," Altemus said. "He is a big part of what we are doing here at Pine-Richland."
Rams defensive backs coach and life skills/special needs teacher Andrew Dugger said Bridge is as committed as any coach on the staff.
"Anything I ask him to do, he will do," Dugger said. "He is so easy to work with. He is always smiling. This is a good thing for him."
McGough, 18, who has Down syndrome, goes to midfield with his fellow captains for every pregame coin toss. Bridge's job is to keep players who aren't in the game from wandering onto the playing field. Aker, who also has Down syndrome, looks up directions on the Internet for the team's bus driver.
Their parents appreciate the efforts by Altemus, West Allegheny coach Bob Palko and Gateway coach Terry Smith, their staffs and players.
Pine-Richland kicker Tom Randazza recalled the smile on Bridge's face when he kicked off on Senior Night last season. After the kick, Bridge ran straight toward Altemus and hugged him.
"He adds another dimension of character to the team," Randazza said. "He has been a staple of this program for a long time. He is one of us."
At a recent cold, windy practice, Bridge thought nothing of standing outside and helping Randazza with his kickoffs. He smiled during the entire workout.
Bridge's father, Thomas, said he believes it's important for his son to be a part of the team.
"It is hard to put into words the difficulties he faces every day," Thomas Bridge said. "The fact that Clair Altemus welcomed my son and made him an assistant coach speaks volumes for the type of person Clair Altemus is."
Thomas Bridge recalled last season's Senior Night, when his son received a standing ovation. When he found out Matt was going to kick off, he asked Altemus, "Are you sure you want him to kick?"
Altemus said, "He is kicking."
Bridge realized what Altemus has done for him.
"Coach Altemus is great," Bridge said. "The players are great. I really like coaching."
He was with the Rams when they won the WPIAL Class AAA title during his sophomore season and advanced to the PIAA championship game.
Aker, 28, has high hopes for Gateway to advance to Heinz Field and this year's Class AAAA championship game.
"I have a lot of friends on the team," Aker said. "The players are nice to me."
His mother, Patti, said she has no concerns about her son being with the team. He told her after last Friday night's rain-plagued game that getting soaked was worth it.
"Terry Smith is an unbelievable person," she said. "There are some pretty special people out there who understand these kids can do what everyone can do. It just takes them a little longer."
Smith said Aker has been around the program a long time, and he loves the Gators.
"He is so emotional," Smith said. "If we lose, he cries. He takes it harder than anyone else. The players love him. They look after him."
West Allegheny coach Bob Palko said it doesn't enter his mind that one of his players is different.
"Some kids have red hair, some kids are tall, and some are short," Palko said. "Having these kids on our team helps our players learn real life lessons. That is what football is all about, teaching life lessons."
Those life lessons are important for everyone, not just the students, said West Allegheny life skills/special education teacher Tony Castelluci. He said any extra-curricular activity helps improve social behavior for these children and gives them social acceptance.
"There is a place for these kids," he said.
Candy Smith, president of ARC of Greater Pittsburgh on the South Side, said people with disabilities are part of the community, and they need and want to be included. Not only does their involvement in sports make a difference in their lives, but it also teaches the football players acceptance, tolerance, and empathy.
"This kind of interaction is important to these kids' self esteem, helps them build friendships and gives them an opportunity to do things that everyone else does," Smith said. "It highlights their abilities ... not their disabilities."
McGough has worked his way up through the West Allegheny program, just like everyone else.
"He has given us so much," Palko said. "We get 10-fold back from these kids. It teaches our players that it is OK to be different."