MASON CITY | Hayden Despenas summed up the unforgettable moment in four words.
“That was pretty awesome,” the Mason City seventh-grader said.
It was a moment Despenas won’t soon forget. Nether will his parents. Neither will his teammates. Neither will his coaches.
Strapped in his wheel chair, Despenas, battling a debilitating condition called Friedreich's ataxia, was one of the boys Thursday afternoon.
It was the final seventh-grade football game of the season, and Mason City was facing off with county rival Clear Lake.
Despenas has served as the honorary captain all season, but coach Raymond Wynter wanted to do more.
He wanted Despenas to get into the game. And he wanted him to score.
Despenas’ mother, Sarah, called that “ambitious.”
But she knew her youngest of three boys would love every minute of it if it could be pulled off.
Hayden has always had an affinity for sports. Hockey and the Chicago Blackhawks are his first love. Football isn’t far behind.
When he was playing flag football in kindergarten, Despenas scored a touchdown the first time he touched the ball.
“He was like a pinball,” his father Dana recalled.
Hayden had to wait a few years between touchdowns, but his second one — the one coming Thursday where he went 65 yards off the left side — may prove to be a tad more memorable.
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His teammates cheered his every move as his wheelchair powered toward the west end zone. The Clear Lake players, who were in on the plan all along, playfully dove toward his wheelchair.
Everyone was beaming from ear to ear. It didn't matter which school you were rooting on. This was much bigger and far more important than winning and losing a game.
“Not everyone gets to do something they love,” Wynter said. “For him, it’s hard not being able to do that anymore. We wanted him to feel a part of something, and what’s better than Mohawk football?”
Wynter is hoping Despenas’ attitude proves as a lasting example to his young group of players.
“Seeing him in the hallways, he always has that smile,” he said. “He never seems to have a bad day.”
Thursday was the best of days.
He received a signed football from the middle school football teams, and he said he plans to place it next to his other signed Mohawk footballs.
Despenas is batting a genetic, neurodegenerative disease that affects 1 in 50,000 people. He was diagnosed in 2012. It’s affected his ability to walk, go to school and complete simple tasks.
None of that mattered Thursday.
“It’s so cool to see how those boys rally around him,” Sarah said. “And I don’t feel it’s out of pity. I feel they really want to include him. They are friends, many have been with him in school or church since he was a little boy, and this was there way of saying, ‘Hey, I want you to be a part of this.’”
Thursday marked the final seventh-grade football game of the year. Win or lose, this was the perfect ending.
“We felt there needed to be something more for him,” Wynter said. “What better way than being able to score a touchdown?”
Added Sarah, “He’s always been like, ‘I want to play.’ This was a way to include him.”
When Hayden crossed the end zone, he was mobbed by teammates. After a speech from Wynter praising his positive attitude, the team broke into a chant of “Mohawks! Mohawks! Mohawks!”
“The No. 1 thing is don’t take things for gratned,” Wynter said. “But don’t give up, either.”
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