Hold Nothing Back
Nov 01, 2018 10:34AM
● By Maleesa Johnson
Surveying the field of fifth grade Dragon Youth Football players on a rainy day in Dragon Stadium, you wouldn’t immediately notice anything out of the ordinary. In fact, you may never notice. On the sidelines, incredibly accommodating coaches and referees keep an eye out. In the stands sit brave parents who won’t let their kids be stopped by life’s realities.
And underneath two separate sets of pads and helmets stand two remarkable overcomers. One is legally blind, the other deaf. Together with their teammates, they play the game, simply because they love it and because they can.
Not long after Beckett Ruiz was born, his parents, Bryce and Michaela, started to notice his eyes appearing to shake when he tried to focus on things. He was their third born, and they hadn’t seen anything like this with Beckett’s two older brothers, Parker and Quinn.
“His eyes were shaking and they would roll up when you would change his diaper or hold him on your shoulder,” Michaela recalls.
After a series of tests, it was determined that he had congenital stationary night blindness. Despite the name, his condition is not limited to vision in the dark. By five months old, Beckett was in glasses. Less than three years later, his sister, Addington, was born and displaying the same symptoms.
“We didn’t have an idea of how significant the vision loss would be,” Michaela says. “When they were babies, they were responding to light and you could tell that they had vision.”
Now, Beckett and Addington are ages 11 and eight, respectively, and the siblings have each been through eye surgeries and have 20/200 vision. Although that is considered legally blind in the United States, it doesn’t stop the two from doing every sport imaginable and excelling in school.
Beckett is homeschooled along with his sister. The ability to set the pace and use different technology when needed has been a game changer in their education. They started in the fall of 2017 and haven’t looked back. Both kids are avid readers and take in all they can through their iPads, which allow them to view the text as large as needed.
“We’re so fortunate to live in this era right now with iPads because everything can be scanned in and blown up as large as you need it,” Michaela says.
Between two homeschoolers, two high school students and sports for each kid, the Ruiz family stays busy. The oldest, Parker, is 17 and primarily plays lacrosse. Quinn, 15, plays football and lacrosse. Both are active in Young Life. Addington is actively involved in gymnastics, jiu jitsu and Driven fitness classes. Beckett also participates in the latter two, but his main sport right now is tackle football.
“I’ve always seen my brothers play,” Beckett says. “It was super interesting, so I was just like, ‘I’ll just try it this year.’”
The fifth grader is no stranger to the sport. For the past few years, he has played flag football at Liberty Christian in Argyle, though even that was not without its bumps and scrapes. Beckett wears glasses and kept them on when playing flag football. However, his glasses do not correct his vision, they just magnify things a little. This resulted in a few footballs to the face, and eventually, broken glasses. When Beckett transitioned to tackle football in his first year with Dragon Youth Football, the family decided to do away with glasses during the sport altogether.
“All the glasses do is make things bigger,” Bryce says. “It doesn’t necessarily clarify anything. So we decided to try without because the depth perception in tackle football can be really deceiving. If you’re trying to tackle someone and you think they’re closer than they are, it’s not going to work.”
So, Beckett, with the help of teammates and coaches, is making things work without glasses. It must be working, because when asked what his favorite part of football is, he replies: “Just tackling people.”
That’s exactly what he does as nose guard in Dragon Youth Football. Despite being on the smaller side for his team, Beckett tends to excel as defensive end and, occasionally, center.
“He’s quick and scrappy,” Bryce says of his son. “Everything on the line is closer in, so he can see it better.”
After sitting down with Beckett’s coaches, Bryce realized that the whole team would be best served by understanding his son’s condition and what that meant when he was on the field.
“We explained to the players that when your dad is 20 yards away and throws the ball, you can see it coming,” Bryce says. “But Beckett doesn’t see it until about five feet in front of him.”
The coaches were in on this as well and, according to the Ruiz family, have been incredibly supportive and welcoming the entire time. That is a huge relief for Bryce and Michaela, who were a bit wary at the idea of putting their son in tackle football.
“The reassurance was how enthusiastic Coach Rudy [Renda] was,” Bryce says. “He was like, ‘This is not a problem, we’ll figure it out!’” “We’re never going to try to hold him back,” Bryce adds. “We’re just going to let him push himself. He’s played soccer, he’s played baseball, he’s played basketball...the list goes on.”
When it comes to his vision, Beckett is very self-aware. He knows the risks he takes in tackle football, but when he gets knocked down, he gets right back up. Beckett can even tell you confidently what conditions will best serve his vision.
“It depends on what time of day it is. At night, I’m not gonna see the football. Or if it’s really sunny outside,” Beckett pauses and points outside to the overcast day. “Right now, this would be pretty good.”
Rain or shine, you’ll still find him on the field as long as there are practices or games.
“I thought I’d never be able to look from their point of view and wear a helmet,” Beckett says. “It’s so cool to see the game through a helmet.”
Spencer Stables has only been in Southlake for two years, but he can still proudly recite the number of state titles obtained by the Dragon varsity football team.
That’s because the Stables family lives and breathes football. On Mondays and Thursdays, Spencer has Dragon Youth Football practice. Also on Thursdays, Harrison, the oldest Stables boy, has JV games. On Fridays, they go to varsity games and on Saturdays, they go to Spencer’s games. And on Sundays?
“We have a Sunday of watching it on TV,” laughs Kelli, the two boys’ mom.
Spencer is in fifth grade and is on the same Dragon Youth Football team as Beckett. Much like Beckett, he is simply following in his older brother’s footsteps when he hits the gridiron each week.
Harrison, a sophomore at Carroll High, has landed a spot on the JV team. It seemed like a no-brainer for Spencer to play as well. So, he slapped on a cap to keep his Cochlear hearing implants in place under a helmet and got to work.
“We never want to tell him no,” Kelli says of her son. “We can’t say ‘No, you can’t do that because...’ So we just held our breath and tried to give him every opportunity to do what he wants to do.”
Spencer spent his first 31 days in the NICU. After a tough first month, he received his newborn hearing screening, which revealed that he had a hearing disorder.
“By the time he was three years old, he was producing words, but they were his words and you couldn’t understand him,” Kelli says. “And, bless him, there was no frustration on his part. He would tell you what he wanted and off he’d go.”
Spencer was only three years old when he first underwent surgery to get hearing in one ear. By age five, he received his second implant.
“It’s a blessing that there is now an option that is FDA approved that allows him to hear,” Spencer’s dad, Don, says.
The implants have helped Spencer greatly in school. He is now proudly on the A/B honor roll at Durham Intermediate School. Beyond the classroom, those implants, paired with a wireless microphone that feeds into them, aid Spencer in the sport that he loves. He has played Dragon Youth Football since he was in fourth grade and loves it.
His first year, he was put on Coach Rudy’s team, and this year, through the draft selection process, he was picked by the same coaches again.
“Coach Rudy’s team is an amazing team and it’s a really great honor to be on the team again,” Spencer says.
The fifth grader is not far behind his older brother. Harrison started playing in third grade and even played for USA Football in the International Bowl at AT&T Stadium – a program that brings 70 different countries together for a series of games and scrimmages. Spencer looks up to his brother, though that may not last long from a literal standpoint. This season, the fifth-grade lineman is using some Harrisons old shoulder pads, but they aren’t the pads Harrison wore in fifth grade. In fact, they aren’t even the pads he wore in sixth grade. Spencer, the biggest kid on his team, is using shoulder pads that Harrison wore in eighth grade.
When asked if he is going to be taller than his brother, Spencer says, “That’s what Mom and Dad say, and Harrison is not ok with it,” as his brother simply gives a good-natured smile. Harrison has served as one of the key figures to help Spencer off the field understand what he needs to be doing.
While his size gives him an advantage on the line of scrimmage, his hearing, even with the implants, still present some challenges.
“In games, I really can’t hear that well,” he says.
Last year, the family and coaches realized that when Spencer goes on the field, he is too far away for the implants to pick up the mic that his coach wears to talk to him.
So, they worked out a system for the player next to him to tell him when to start the play. Now, with Spencer experimenting at center, the coaches are working on a system that will allow the quarterback to nonverbally communicate plays.
“The coach who was in charge of Spencer wore the mic at all times so that he could hear what the coach was saying,” Kelli explains. “It was unbelievable, they did everything they could and made him feel like he was apart of the team instantly.”
That was the family’s experience from the start: accommodating coaches who would do anything to get Spencer on the field.
“I can’t speak more highly of the coaches, as a mom, knowing that this won’t define him,” Kelli says emphatically. “To have our first experience be so amazing and get personal notes from the coaches about how they love having Spencer on the team, it’s just amazing.”
Camaraderie At The Core
With their youngest boys on the same fifth grade Dragon Youth Football team, the Stables family and Ruiz family have remarkably similar messages. They won’t let medical conditions stop or define their sons. Both sets of parents acknowledge that this is easier said than done, but they also point to one program that helped them all rest assured.
The Dragon Youth Football coaches didn’t just accept the boys, they enthusiastically welcomed them to a team.
“It was a great opportunity to become better as a coach, as a parent, as a mentor,” Coach Rudy says. “I thought it was a great opportunity for our team to come together and figure out how to not only enhance the experience for our players, but to improve our communication skills, our listening skills and improve in a lot of aspects that you take for granted everyday.”
Much like Kelli, Beckett’s dad continually voices his appreciation for DYF welcoming his son.
“For a program that’s so competitive and that has so much history, it is so forward thinking that it is about the broader experience for all of these kids,” Bryce says.
As for Spencer and Beckett, they have a special bond. At one point, Coach Phillip Odette asked Spencer what his job was for gameday.
“To be strong, to be fast,” Spencer replies.
“No Spencer, your job is to truck everybody in front of you and protect Beckett,” Coach Phillip says.
This job isn’t limited to game days.
“When they had DYF run onto the field at Dragon Stadium, I told Spencer, ‘Hey, don’t let anyone run over Beckett,’” Bryce recalls. “And Spencer was like, ‘No, he’s mine. If anyone tries to knock him over, I’ll kick their butt.’"
They make quite a pair, the smallest and largest players on the team. One thing is for sure, Beckett and Spencer both love the game, and they won’t let anything get in the way.
“They’re humble; they’re great teammates; they’re courteous; they’re great listeners; they’re competitive,” Coach Rudy says. “Spencer never misses a beat. And Beckett? He’d never say anything about his challenges because he doesn’t put limits on himself. That’s the kind of people these kids are. They’re the first to volunteer in a drill, they’re the first to jump up.”