Autistic football player an inspiration to many 

Kyle Weafer had never played football before, but that wasn't the only obstacle to his goal of making the varsity team his senior year.

Shoes. They were the biggest hurdle.

Diagnosed with autism near age 3, Kyle has obsessions that define his world, and many of them posed a problem for playing football.

But Kyle's commitment was stronger than his compulsions. He has so inspired his teammates and classmates at Blue Valley Northwest High School that he was one of 30 semifinalists for a Rudy Award, a national recognition that will go to a high school football player who embodies character, courage, contribution and commitment like Rudy Ruettiger, the famous Notre Dame football walk-on.

Weafer came close, finishing as one of two runners-up for the award, announced Feb. 3. He won a $5,000 scholarship.

"Work hard. I give 110 percent effort," Kyle said, summing up the character that has captivated his teammates.

At a pep rally recently, the student body president announced that Kyle was in the running for the award and urged students to vote for him. Kyle thanked the crowd. "Go Huskies," he cheered, and the students responded with a standing ovation.

That night at halftime of the varsity basketball game, his coach presented him with a No. 45 Notre Dame jersey signed by Rudy Ruettiger for being a semifinalist. Swinging his arms to raise the roof as he walked onto the court, Kyle didn't stop smiling. Again, the Northwest students jumped to their feet.

"I just so happy for everybody," Kyle told his parents later. "Everybody so happy for me."

It all started last January, when Kyle, now 19, abruptly announced to his dad, "I play football."

Bob Weafer was skeptical. Here was a kid who every day — no matter the weather — wore a purple T-shirt, silver shorts and flip-flops. Shoes, never. How would he wear the uniform, the socks, the cleats?

But his son was insistent. Dad talked with Northwest football Coach Mike Zegunis. He explained Kyle.

The doctor who diagnosed him with autism told Lisa Weafer that her son might never say more than three or four words. He threw tantrums out of frustration to be understood. He had sensory problems that led to fixations with clothes and food.

After a preschool teacher drilled purple, purple, purple because it was the one color Kyle could not name, he began wearing only purple. He won't wear socks, shoes, long pants or long-sleeve shirts. His T-shirts have to be equally worn so they feel alike. He has at least 20 pairs of shorts that are the same.

About 10 years ago, Kyle became fixated with the family's neighborhood pool. Every summer day, he was at the pool by 10 a.m. to help the lifeguards and did not leave until 9:30 at night. His parents would fill a cooler with the Diet Coke and Doritos that made up his diet and refill it in the afternoon. In 10 years, the family took only one summer vacation because Kyle couldn't leave the pool.

"That's autism, that's autism right there," Bob Weafer said.

Meeting with Kyle and Bob Weafer, Zegunis was understanding.

Zegunis so loves football that he'll let anyone play as long as the player makes the commitment. Conditioning sessions in the off-season, 7 a.m. summer workouts, a weeklong summer camp, practices every day after school during football season.

"Don't be lazy," Kyle agreed.

Zegunis and Bob Weafer came up with a plan to ease Kyle into the routine, starting with once-a-week workouts in the weight room. Eventually, Kyle was there four times a week, just like everyone else. Kyle got stronger and stronger. He lost 37 pounds. He flexed his new muscles in the weight-room mirror. "I'll tell you what, he was a kind of a pudgy kid, and he started to look to like a football player," Zegunis said.

The other players noticed, and they noticed his positive attitude, how he was having a blast working so hard, just being a part of the team.

"You couldn't help but feel the same way — 'I am really lucky and blessed to be here and play this game,' " Zegunis said. "That's what football is, it's a game. We're blessed and lucky to play it, and I think he taught a lot of us that."

Bob Weafer had bought a pair of $30 cleats on eBay, not wanting to make a steep investment in case Kyle couldn't bring himself to put them on.

When the day came for Kyle to suit up, his dad entered the locker room and offered to tie the shoes, a task Kyle hadn't mastered.

"Go away," Kyle told him. "I do this myself."

Bob Weafer waited outside, worrying about his son struggling. He doesn't know how Kyle got them tied, if a teammate helped him. All he knows is that when Kyle came out, the cleats were on his feet and he wasn't tearing to get them off.

"Oh, my God," Weafer said. "What a miracle."

The baby born on Super Bowl Sunday 1991 had grown up to be a football player.

Kyle became a defensive lineman, a position that fit his strength but doesn't require a lot of fancy footwork and knowledge of plays.

Zegunis doesn't cut players. If you do what's required, you'll suit up. Kyle had made the commitment — only three or four kids from the entire football program had perfect attendance over the summer, and Kyle was one of them, giving up his pool time to be there.

"For him to be able to give that up, that was huge," Lisa Weafer said.

When fall came, there Kyle was, wearing the Huskies uniform with the jersey in, of all colors, purple.

The season's first game was in Andover, Kan. Bob Weafer saw Kyle to the bus, a moment he'll never forget.

"Your only son who you never thought would talk much let alone thrive is getting on a bus with normal boys, and the normal boys are loving him, and they wanted him to be there," Weafer said. "It wasn't something made up. It was the real deal."

Lisa Weafer likens it to taking a child to college for the first time, something the Weafers will never do with Kyle.

"Maybe that was our moment," she said.

The Huskies were beating Andover handily, and as the clock wound down, the defense was on the field. The coach was ready to make substitutions. "Ky-le! Ky-le! Ky-le!" the Northwest crowd chanted. He played for one down and ran off the field flashing his signature thumbs up.

"He didn't care if he was starting or scoring touchdowns or even if he got in the game," Zegunis said. "He was just so excited to be on the team and to say he's a football player."

Three more games, the stars aligned — the Huskies were ahead enough and the defense was on the field — for Kyle to play.

The first time Lisa Weafer saw him play brought tears to her eyes.

"It was kind of like a mini-flashback of the last 18 years of life," she said.

"I look at how much he's succeeded, from being told he would not say more than two or three words, this child with huge sensory issues and I think, 'Oh my gosh, he's playing football. He has on socks. He has on football cleats.' "

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A daily newspaper covering San Francisco, San Mateo County and serving Alameda, Marin and Santa Clara counties.
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