One victory at a time

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Jellico football player is overcoming challenges

By Dwane Wilder

Austyn Simmons lunges out of a three-point stance, digs his cleats into the turf, and drives his man backward.
Play after play, the process is repeated.
The life of an offensive lineman is about as mundane as it gets in football. However, Austyn revels in the lunch pail task of clearing lanes for running backs that generally get all the glory. The Jellico Elementary School 8th grader is just happy to be part of a team that appreciates him for who is and what he has been through to get here.
“You tell him that you want him to do and he goes out and accomplishes it,” said Blue Devils coach Les Stiers.
“That’s the reason he starts every week. He does his job.”
Austyn is living proof that seemingly insurmountable challenges can be overcome through hard work and guidance from caring parents and teachers. When he was only 3 years old, Austyn was diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome, a social disorder which is a milder form of autism.
“He’s very intelligent. His main (obstacle) is social issues,” said his mother Wendy, who is especially thankful for caring adults like Stiers that welcomed her son with open arms and asked no questions.
“That’s why we chose sports, because if you left it up to (a child with Asperger’s), they would not get involved. (The doctors) told us that it wouldn’t be possible for him to do things like this, but we wouldn’t accept that.
“Coach Stiers has been working with him pretty good. When you’ve got good people around you, it can help you go far.”
Wendy and her husband William got their son involved in sports at an early age to help him come out of his shell. The family recently moved to Jellico from Virginia Beach, where Austyn and his younger brother, Spencer, spent the first few years of their lives.
Austyn had never played tackle football before coming Tennessee, but he had been on a flag football team in Virginia.
It didn’t take him long to adjust. He soon earned a starting position at left guard and helped pave the way for running backs Austin Plank and Caney Minton to score a combined five touchdowns during a 40-0 victory two weeks over Episcopal School of Knoxville. That win ended a losing streak over five years long for the Blue Devils.
“He’s been told all of his life that he’s a failure and a misfit,” said Stiers.
“But he’s added so much value to this team. Instead of him learning from us, we’ve learned from him. Sometimes people just need a chance. And he’s made hay with that chance.”
Austyn’s favorite subject in school is science. He is particularly fascinated by tornadoes and is big fan of “storm chaser” television shows.
“He’s a good kid,” said Tom Collins, one of his teachers.
“He pays attention in class and is eager to learn. He’s the kind of kid you want in class.”
On the field, Austyn has “come a long way”, according to his dad.
Before moving to Jellico, Austyn played rec league basketball in Virginia, where he once hit a 20-foot shot to help his team advance to the playoffs and on to the championship game.
“I like the sportsmanship, being with my teammates and being part of something. I like the rivalry and the spirit,” said Austyn, who hopes to one day attend Marshall University.
“(Marshall has) a particular program for people with Asperger’s,” said Wendy.
“They get to go to college and have the same experience as everyone else, but, at the same time, they are watched to make sure their needs are met.”
As for now, Austyn is  savoring every moment that he gets to spend with his team and looks forward to earning a letterman’s jacket by the end of the season. Austyn and his family are living life one day at a time, one game at a time, one victory at a time.