Gloria Hillard for NPR
Taylor Howell told Vasquez High's football coach that if he wasn't blind he sure would love to play football. The coach told him he'd have to come up with a better excuse than that. The sophomore now plays center on the junior varsity team.
It's afternoon practice for the junior varsity football team at Vasquez High in Acton, Calif. A high desert wind somersaults a discarded paper plate across the line of scrimmage just before it becomes a pile of white jerseys and purple helmets.
"You were offsides," the coach yells after blowing his whistle.
The players dust themselves off and line up for the next play. At center, is Taylor, a lean 15-year-old. His quarterback, Bryan McCauley, is a few yards behind him in shotgun formation.
"Down, set, hike, good," Bryan says.
That "good" from the quarterback is valuable information for Howell, who is blind. It means his aim was dead on.
"Breaking out of the huddle after he calls the play, it's up to my guards to get me up to the line of scrimmage, make sure that I know where the ball is," he says.
On the field the tackles tell him what to do and if Taylor has a question he goes to Bryan.
"I make sure he's straight so he doesn't snap the ball crooked," he says.
Head coach Tim Jorgensen says initially he played Taylor as center during the point after touchdown.
"Cause that's somewhat a protected position you can't hit him because their heads are down and he's an excellent snapper," he says. "And then about a couple games in, the coach says 'Well, he wants to play regular,' and I said, 'Put him in there.'"
During the water break, Taylor takes off his helmet. He has short, light brown hair and a no-nonsense demeanor. But when asked about the practice and if he took any hits, his face lights up.
"I've taken a few hard ones," he says. "It happens. It's part of football."
You take the hits as they come, Taylor says. That's something he learned at a very young age. He was just a toddler when he was diagnosed with cancer. After a year of radiation and chemotherapy, he lost both of his eyes.
"We've never discouraged him from doing anything he's wanted to do," says his mom, Jennifer Oudekerk
She says her son learned the alphabet in Braille when he was in preschool.
"He's always been a little ahead of his time, which has been amazing," she says. "He is a daily inspiration for me."
Teammate Hector Hernandez remembers when Taylor told him he was going to try out for football.
Gloria Hillard/for NPR
Taylor's teammates look out for him and give him cues on the field.
Taylor's teammates look out for him and give him cues on the field. Gloria Hillard/for NPR
"And I like, I didn't think he'd actually do it," he says. "He's pretty tough, he gets banged up every day and he's still hanging in there."
The players don't cut their center any slack, but they're watching out for him all the time, whether it's a gentle tug on his jersey or verbal cues — a step forward, a little to the right.
It's more than two hours into practice. The sun is setting behind the hills and those white jerseys are more a shade of dirt and grass now. Taylor says he plans to try out for varsity next year and has talked to Jorgensen about playing college ball.
"I'm realistic with him. I said, 'Well you know you're going to grow, and ... you gotta lift weights to get your strength up and as we get into it, we'll see,'" Jorgensen says. "We'll take it one step at a time, one year at a time."
That was good enough for Taylor. For now he's focused on winning the next game.
"That's a feeling you can't describe, you know, after you've come off the field knowing that you helped your team just win," Taylor says.
A whistle blows and, after the dust settles, a tall guard with wide shoulders gently guides his center back to the offensive line.