Heart of a champion: Mustang player delivers sportsmanship lessons
October 19, 2011
KREMMLING – At 5 foot, 2 inches and 110 pounds, the freshman with Down syndrome is the smallest player on the Mustangs varsity team, but what he brings to the game is larger than life.
For No. 57 – Dalton Uhrich – football grants him a sense of belonging.
“Being a mom, I was a little leery of letting him play,” said Tammy Swanson. “But ever since he was little, before he could even walk, we’ve always had the pact that we will never tell him that he cannot do something. He will tell us. He’ll at least try. But as parents, we have never told him, ‘No, you can’t do that.”
Like the other boys, Dalton, 14, gets pumped up for practice and home games, eager to suit up.
He may not be the fastest runner, his speech is at times difficult to understand, he may at times struggle with getting on his shoes and football pads, or need a small reminder to take off his helmet before sipping water at the fountain during practice.
And although Dalton may not take part in every drill or get as much game time as teammates, his heart is very much in the game.
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“He doesn’t want to be the best player, he just wants to be included. He always has,” his mother said. “He makes it to every practice, whether he plays or not.”
When he’s off the field, he’s cheering on his favorite team, the New England Patriots, studying the skill of quarterback Tom Brady, or he’s doing pre-game warm-up exercises all on his own at his home in Kremmling.
This year, Dalton has played in home games when the Mustangs have held a generous lead.
“We make sure he’s got his chin strap buttoned, and away he goes,” said varsity Coach Chris Brown, who with other coaches has been working with Dalton about learning how to block. He’s the first special needs student on the Mustangs football team in Brown’s 36 years of coaching.
Dalton has learned to be patient for his time on the field. During long spells on the sidelines, he enthusiastically cheers on the team. He even has been known to face the crowd to drum up cheers from the stands.
“He’s happy, because he gets a front-row seat to the game,” his mom said.
“That one game, he had his helmet on all the game,” said Dalton’s dad Dwayne Uhrich.
“Yeah, he was ready to go the whole time,” Tammy said.
“Second game, he finally took his helmet off,” Dwayne said.
“He got tired of waiting,” Tammy said.
It takes a village
The tight-knit community of Kremmling has made a difference in the life of Dalton.
Fellow players, peers he’s known since preschool, constantly look out for him. Coaches take him under their wings. The whole school looks out for Dalton.
When it comes time to play, fellow players guide Dalton, instructing him on where to stand on the field. During one home game this year, another defensive guard took Dalton down pretty hard. Dalton picked himself back up. But on the next play, teammates had one particular opposing team player in their sights, they said.
Same in junior high basketball, when a player once stole the ball from Dalton. After that, Dalton’s teammates “turned it up a notch,” said assistant middle school football coach and head basketball Coach Leo Pesch.
Under Coach Pesch, Dalton once ran 90 yards for a touchdown against SoRoCo – with a little “help” from the opposition.
“He was so excited,” Pesch said.
That night, “He had to call his cousin and tell him all about it,” Dalton’s dad said.
During a junior-high basketball game, Dalton made one basket.
“Dalton would get the ball, and the other guys would block the rest of the team, so he could at least shoot. It was pretty cool,” his mother said.
His participation has been met with great sportsmanship from other schools, Pesch said.
“The league in dealing with this situation is great,” he said. “It’s what all the communities do for Dalton – not just ours.”
Pesch’s own son Leo plays sports with Dalton.
“They’ve learned to always keep an eye on him, protect him. It’s taught the boys that athletics are more about enjoying the moment than actually winning and losing,” Pesch said.
Sports have taught Dalton greater independence and a sense of pride, his mother said. “He’s not a poor sport. If anything, he picks everybody else up. He’s a good sport about everything in life.”
When he was little, Dalton wanted to be a bull rider, but his parents say he grew out of that around age 9.
He joined 8th-grade track once, but “he gave up on that one,” his mother said. “The events are so spread out that he got bored waiting.”
Football and basketball have the action he was looking for. “It’s fun,” Dalton said, just before running off to practice last Wednesday.
He likes “the games” the best, he said.
According to Pesch, “He gives more back to sports and the players than sports does to him.”
Tonya Bina can be reached at 970-887-3334 ext. 19603