Josh Bailey walked across the sideline at Lakeland High School — a teenager with autism playing on a varsity football team — and if the story ended right there, it would be amazing, heartwarming and an inspiration on its own.
But there is so much more.
“Come on,” Bailey screamed at his teammates.
There was a time when Bailey couldn’t talk — one of the traits of autism is delayed speech, and he didn’t learn to speak until he was 3½.
“Get your pads on!” he said.
There was a time when he was awkward, extremely shy and sensitive to loud noises — other traits of autism.
“Let’s go!” he said, confidently. Authoritatively.
There was a time when he didn’t have any passion and he was depressed.
“Come on!” he said, his face full of excitement.
But football changed everything. It unlocked a passion and fire in him. Football gave him a new set of friends and helped him fit into his high school in White Lake Township.
“Come on!” he said.
Bailey, a senior offensive tackle, who stands 6-feet-6 and weighs 270 pounds, led his teammates to the end zone to start stretching. He was selected a captain of the team for the first week of practice — Lakeland uses rotating captains — and he also was selected a captain for the first game against Northville.
This was not some feel-good appointment. No, he earned it. He has the respect and admiration of his teammates because he never missed a conditioning workout during the off-season, and nobody worked harder in the weight room, and nobody is more focused, and nobody loves this team more. He is fixated on football. Everything about football. The workouts. The training. The routine. The practices. The team.
People with autism often thrive on routine and have highly fixated interests.
“I’m autistic and proud,” Bailey said. “I’m not afraid to be open about it. I’ve been through a lot through autism. I turned it from something that hindered me as a child and now I can show people, ‘Hey, a kid with autism is making it in football.’
“People can call me an inspiration, but I’m just living my dream. I got through a lot and I’m still here standing. I may fall but I will not give up. I will keep rising again.”
What Bailey is doing is extraordinary. It is an accomplishment that should be honored and celebrated.
“It’s not so rare for a child with autism to be on a team, but the type of team that this child is on is truly what is exceptionally rare and it is something that I have not seen,” said Dr. Tisa Johnson, the medical director for Henry Ford’s Center for Autism and Developmental Disabilities.
Over the years, she has treated several thousand children with autism in metro Detroit, and she has never encountered somebody like Bailey.
“I haven’t seen any — none,” she said. “I have never met an autistic child who is able to participate in a team sport, truly of his own initiative. I’ve certainly seen some parents push their kids, and they are the reason they may be on an elementary team, and it has been a struggle. Typically, by the teen years, it falls by the wayside.”
About one in 68 children has been identified with autism spectrum disorder, according to estimates from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
“Autism is really having a persistent and functional deficit in social communication and social interaction,” Johnson said. “We do not know what causes it. I can say, very definitively, immunizations do not cause autism. I can say that with complete certainty.”
Some of the symptoms of autism include having trouble understanding other people’s feelings or talking about their own. Some autistic children have a hard time understanding relationships and reading social signals.
And that’s what makes Bailey’s accomplishment even more impressive.
“It’s really the team component that is most striking,” Johnson said. “To be a member of a team, you have to collaborate with someone else. You have to read those nonverbal cues and that social interaction. That’s where these kids’ core deficits lie. Teenagers really rely on a lot of nonverbal communication. The sarcasm, the humor. That peer interaction. These kids really struggle with it.”
Many autistic children find their niche with solitary activities. “I may see a child with autism on a team like a robotics team, or a chess team, where the social interaction isn’t really a part of the team,” she said. “But football is a really social sport.”
And to be selected a captain?
That takes it into the realm of the incredible.
“I would envision that it would have to be a team filled with kids who are accepting, and willing to be empathetic and patient and rally around and support him, and a really supportive coach for that matter,” Johnson said. “I’m sure they have to work to pull out his strengths. But that’s the beauty of a team, right?
“Kids with autism really thrive on sameness, the adherence to routine. Football could really feed into that. It’s ritualistic, it’s routine. The drills you do. The workouts and it’s repetitive. The fact that he is a member of a team at this level, and has been doing relatively well, is quite rare.”
‘It didn’t fix itself’
Josh Bailey was diagnosed with autism as a child. “When he was 2, it was glaringly obvious,” said Robert Bailey, his father. “They were all classic signs: He wasn’t talking, he wasn’t communicating. He had an obsession with round, circular, spinning objects.”
Bailey was sent to countless intervention therapies. “It didn’t fix itself,” his father said. “It was a lot of interventions on our part along the way. Now, that said, Josh has been one of the hardest-working kids that I’ve known.”
Now, he has transferred that same energy to the football team. “It’s all Josh,” Robert Bailey said.
When he was in elementary school, Bailey was extremely shy and felt like he was missing something in his life. “I sort of lacked a little passion in my life, a little fire, something to live for,” Bailey said. “I was depressed about it.”
As a freshman, he was terrified at the thought of going to high school — Lakeland has about 1,600 students — and playing on the football team. He had no idea how to make friends. But when he strapped on the pads, when he joined the team, everything changed. “It felt like I opened a door,” he said. “Football means everything.”
Football pulled him out of his shell. He found comfort and familiarity on the team. “Football has given me basically all of my high school friends,” Bailey said. “It’s given me something to love.”
And his life has been transformed.
As a sophomore, Bailey was elected the class president. He is still in the special education program, but he no longer attends special education classes every day.
“I would say that he is among the highest of the high-functioning kids in autism,” Robert Bailey said. “Really, the only trouble he has are social-type stuff. He doesn’t pick things up from context like most kids do. He misses some subtleties with some of the social interactions.”
But it’s not obvious.
“If you didn’t know what was going on,” Robert Bailey said, “you would presume he is a shy kid.”
‘I’ve come so far’
All summer, Bailey was focused on three things: becoming a captain, earning a starting spot on the offensive line and getting a college scholarship.
When he was selected a captain for the first game, it meant everything to him. “This program has given me so much,” Bailey said. “I want to repay it so badly.”
Bailey has a direct, encouraging personality. “Josh is a good guy,” said Ryan Wonders, a senior running back and strong safety. “He cares for everyone on the team. I think he’s changed a lot. During our freshman year, he was quiet and didn’t talk to anyone. Now, as a senior, he sits with us at lunch and he talks to everybody. Just a great guy.”
Bailey earned the first start of his career on Friday night — a loss against Walled Lake Western that dropped the Eagles to 1-3.
“It felt amazing to be out there with the first string,” Bailey said. “But now I have to keep working hard to make sure I stay with the first string.”
Football is not a fixed, concrete game. It is ever-changing and fluid. Blocking assignments can change in an instant, depending on the situation. And an offensive lineman needs to read the clues and react with instincts. That is the hard part for Bailey — reading and interpreting situations. Both on the field and in life.
“He is doing good,” said Lakeland coach John Maltese. “I think he is improving. You won’t find a harder worker.”
Bailey went to 10 football camps over the summer, trying to attract the attention of a college recruiter.
“It’s important to me because, again, I want to show people that an autistic kid can go and play in college on one of the biggest stages for football in the world,” he said.
Bailey certainly has the size to play in college. At one of the camps, he piqued the interest of an NCAA Division III school in Cincinnati. “The College of Mount St. Joseph offered me a roster spot,” he said.
Although DIII schools cannot offer athletic scholarships, Bailey was stunned when he heard the news. “I was like, holy crap,” he said. “I’ve come so far. It makes me feel really vindicated. That all this hard work is starting to pay off. But I still have to keep working.”
Could he play in college?
“I wouldn’t put it past him,” Maltese said.
Because he keeps working, keeps improving and keeps creating a new sense of what is possible.
“I can’t think about college,” Bailey says. “This is my team right now.”
He tugs on his jersey. He’s so proud to wear a Lakeland jersey.
So proud to be on this team. It means everything.
Contact Jeff Seidel: email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @seideljeff.