PLEASANT GROVE — Dakota Parker’s cerebral palsy keeps him from doing some things, but not from participating on the Pleasant Grove seventh-grade football team.
On Sunday, Sept. 1, Dakota, 13, got an unexpected visit from members and coaches of the Viking’s football team. They asked him to join as the honorary captain. He accepted just two days before team photos were taken.
Dakota, who was diagnosed at age 2 ½ with cerebral palsy, loves sports. Despite some developmental delays, his mother said, he is a whiz at remembering stats from basketball and football games.
“We tease him that most kids like to watch cartoons or Disney. ESPN is his cartoon. He’s never been into anything else but that,” said his mother, Tanalyn Parker. “And also NASCAR. He’s a huge NASCAR fan. We don’t know where that came from.”
His small body has undergone surgeries, regular Botox injections to help stretch out his muscles and countless hours of therapy. His condition, as well as an internal pump that releases muscle relaxants into Dakota’s body, make it so he can’t play football in regular positions safely. But Saturday, the smallest team member got an opportunity to score a touchdown for the team that has loved and accepted him as he is.
In the Vikings’ game against the Westlake Thunder, Westlake was down 50 points. As the Vikings’ coach put a uniformed Dakota in the game for a victory kneel to end the game, the Westlake coach, Brian Walker, shouted out, “Let him score! We won’t touch him,” Parker said.
After a timeout and huddle to determine the teams’ plays, Dakota ran the ball to the end zone, scoring his first touchdown. Parker said there were few dry eyes on the field as Dakota made his way across the field.
“I just thought, ‘What kind of man, what kind of a coach would do that when they’re behind, when they have not even scored yet and it’s the last minute or two of the game?’ ” Parker said.
Dakota’s touchdown was the culmination of the kindness extended to the teen, his mother said. From the moment he joined, the players and coaches have accepted him as one of their own.
“He now has 28 brothers that are going to be there for him to watch out and take care of him,” Coach Damon Dodson wrote to parents of the Vikings, explaining Dakota’s involvement with the team.
Dakota has responded to the kindness, Parker said. Though he doesn’t dress down for practices (it takes two people to dress Dakota in the heavy pads) he never misses practice or complains about football taking up too much of his time. He runs the stopwatch for drills, he reviews films with the team and he shows up to every game in his uniform, even though it exhausts his energy for the entire day.
“I think it’s helped boost his self-esteem. He’s at the age now where he’s noticing more and more the differences with him, but there’s a glow about him. He’s been in heaven. It’s been the greatest thing ever,” Parker said. “(The coaches) have been awesome with him and treated him like the other boys, completely accepted him. Dakota doesn’t stop smiling with those coaches.”
As a parent, Parker said, the team’s acceptance of her son has eased her fears about how kids may treat him at a big school like Pleasant Grove Junior High. Currently, he attends Lincoln Academy, a small charter school.
“It was a learning experience for everyone, including us,” Parker said. “To see how understanding people can be and let Dakota do that. It’s just amazing.”