After four years as his school's water boy, Michigan high-school senior Robby Heil, who has Down syndrome, scored a touchdown during a football game, with his shocked mother looking on.
“Everyone was chanting ‘Robby! Robby!’ I started to get emotional,” Debbie Heil, Robby Heil’s mom, told TODAY. “It was a special moment that really had an impact on Robby.”
Throughout high school in Novi, Michigan, Robby has faithfully attended almost every football practice and game to fill water bottles and keep the Novi High School Wildcats hydrated. The team calls him the “hydration engineer,” and they love Robby’s energy and high fives.
“We learn more from Robby than Robby learned from us. He attacks every day with joy and enthusiasm. He doesn’t have a bad day,” said Jeff Burnside, the head coach of the Wildcats. “He’s always happy. It is infectious.”
He decided he wanted to do something special for Robby as a way to thank him for being such an important part of the team and that’s when an idea struck him.
“I thought ‘I am going to get him a carry before he graduates,’” he said. “I wanted to give him a week that he could remember. Not just that one moment, but that week.”
The Monday before the game, Burnside invited Robby into his office and asked him if he wanted to practice all week to play in the game wearing full pads, a uniform, and helmet. Robby agreed immediately and his dad signed off on it. They kept it as a surprise for his mother. Debbie Heil has been battling cancer and Burnside thought seeing her son play football would bolster her spirits.
The play was simple. Robby would take a handoff from the quarterback and then run the ball into the end zone. Throughout practice all week, the team perfected their plan. Burnside treated Robby like any other player; even making him perform down-and-ups exercises when he took off his helmet without permission.
“He loved every second of it,” Burnside said. “He actually had a grin the entire time. We put him through the paces all week and it was a true experience.”
Robby became so excited, he spilled the beans, and told his unsuspecting mom he was playing in the game. But Heil didn’t believe him and tried tempering his excitement.
“I was discouraging him,” she said, adding she told him “We need you on the sidelines.”
The night before the game, she learned that Robby was really playing. Even then, she thought they’d let him play during halftime; she had no idea he would actually be a part of the game.
As Debbie Heil stood on the sidelines snapping photos, she heard the crowd cheer "Robby" and saw her son enter the game. He took the handoff from the quarterback and ran down the field as the defense chased after him.
“It happened so fast,” she said. “Just hearing the chanting and when I saw him do his dance and the players rushing toward him. Two of our players had to hold me up because I was overcome with emotion and when they left, I fell to the ground because I couldn’t hold myself up."
Burnside had arranged everything with the coach of the opposing team, South Lyon East, prior to the game. Robby's touchdown didn’t count on the scoreboard, but that didn't matter to those involved. After the game, the South Lyon East team even gave Robby a signed jersey with his number, 24.
“They were just phenomenal and the encouragement was a really special moment for us,” said Debbie Heil. “I just want to thank both teams.”