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Franklin College football GM with Down syndrome lifts team: 'We need him more than he needs us'  1 Month ago

Source:   USA Today  

FRANKLIN, Ind. — The work was never done on Franklin College's charming, picturesque campus. Cleaning windows, sweeping floors, all sorts of odd jobs. As Emry Himes toiled, he would catch sight of the football stadium. He'd watch those football players at practice, grunting and sweating and hugging like family.

Some days, he'd let himself daydream. About being part of that football team, being one of them. 

Himes tailgated at every home game during his two years at Franklin. He lined up to fist-bump players as they ran on and off the field. He danced to the music blaring from the speakers. He celebrated more than anyone else when the team pulled off a victory. When graduation came, Himes was downright glum. College was over. Football games were over.

At graduation in May 2018, football coach Mike Leonard was asked to give the commencement speech for students in the college's transitional program for adults with developmental disabilities.

As he watched Himes at the dinner afterward, his mind started spinning. Himes was talking to everyone, nonstop. Smiling. Laughing. Engaging. He had heard that Himes loved football; he'd seen him at all the games.

"Emry, I got a question for you," Leonard said to him. "Would you want to be a football coach?"

Of course, in the beginning, the players and coaches were sure they were doing something for Himes. Of course, that's never how things turn out when a magical person like Himes is involved.

"We need him," said Leonard, "more than he needs us."

Just days old, Himes was alone in the hospital. His mom was in prison. 

The plan had been for his mom to start a mother-baby treatment program for women who were incarcerated. She had four driving while intoxicated arrests. She needed to get sober. But when Himes was born with Down syndrome, only his mother was accepted. Himes would have to be placed with a foster family until she could get back on her feet.  

Barb Himes still remembers that winter day. A boy had been born Nov. 7, 1998. He needed a home. Her youngest of four children, daughter Katie, was 10 and had been begging for a baby brother or sister. Her husband, David, happened to get home from work early that day.

"Let's go to the hospital and visit him," Barb Himes told them.  

They held baby Emry, who had tubes attached to his body. Katie fell in love. So did the Himes. All the way home, Katie pleaded with her parents: "Can we get him? Can we get him, please?"

David Himes was the voice of reason. They would just get attached to baby Emry, and then he would have to go back to his mom. But it was getting close to Thanksgiving. Christmas would come next.

"No one should be without family around the holidays," said Barb Himes. She knew how sad the holidays could be. 

Barb and David had had five biological children. But on Christmas Eve morning in 1981, they woke up to find their 2-month-old baby boy, Jake, had died in his sleep from Sudden Infant Death Syndrome.

They understood how fragile life was. They understood that baby Emry needed someone to be there for him. On Dec. 2, 1998, they brought Emry home. There, he joined oldest sister Carrie, two brothers, David and Nick, and Katie.

Months later, his biological mother realized the Himes' home should be his permanent home. From the day they adopted Emry, their world changed forever, said Barb Himes.

"I'm not sure if he needed us more or we needed him more."

Actually, she knows the answer. Like the Franklin football team, they needed him.

Inside Leonard's office, Himes is giggling and talking about his favorite meal — Chicken McNuggets with sweet barbecue sauce, a large French fry and Sprite. He's talking about how he can't wait to get a root beer at a bar on his 21st birthday in November.  

And he is talking about the two rings he picked out last month at Kohl's for his future wife, one a gold band to represent Franklin's gold and blue colors, the other loaded with bling. He'll let her pick which one she likes best. She will be beautiful.

But as he leaves Leonard's office and walks onto the football field, Himes transforms into, well, one of the guys. Defensive back Michael Heading passes him. "What up, bro?" Himes asks.

"Doing good, and you?" Heading answers. "Good, how about yourself?" Himes responds.

Heading breaks into a smile. The 103 players have that same smile every time Himes comes their way. He tackles players, does drills and tosses footballs. And he dances -- a lot.

"He's super-energetic," said Brayton Shannon, a senior offensive lineman. "He's always fun to be around, just always a joy to be around."

Himes said he likes to say he has Up syndrome. Leonard taught him that Franklin football is all about positivity. Plus, that's his role on the team, keeping the players fired up, focused on what matters — and happy.

"My favorite part of football is getting them motivated and getting them loose," said Himes. "Just having fun and being a coach is so fun. To be a coach, stand up, be prepared, get aggressive, you know, be a charger. Just be prepared and stay positive."

Dave Marendt, Franklin's wide receivers coach, said there is only one way to describe Himes: "He's a fireball." A fireball with a sweet soul. As Himes spots the team huddled up in a circle, he runs over and wraps his arms around the players.

"Best friends," the team chants as they break away. Himes said he feels so lucky to call the players his best friends.

The players say they are the lucky ones.

As football season approached last fall, Himes was settling in, getting used to the drill of  being part of a college team, being a coach. But after a couple of weeks, Leonard decided he should have a talk with him.

"You know," Leonard told him, "you're not the coach." Himes' face fell for a minute, then turned to shock as Leonard went on: "You're like the GM."

Himes looked at Leonard kind of funny and said, "GM — a great man." Leonard knew then that this was going to be amazing.

Barb Himes said Franklin's football team has given her son something immeasurable.

"Sometimes, these people arrive in your life and they just are life-changers, and the Franklin team is one of them," she said. "They make him feel included, like he's part of something. It's just amazing."

In his second season, Himes has brought more to the team than Leonard could have ever imagined.

"You know, this game of football and college football, it can get serious at any level. And the players here, the coaches here take it serious just like they would with the Colts," Leonard said. "This is not life and death. This is not war. This is a game, and let's have some fun."

Himes' role is to make sure his players remember that. But it's also to keep them focused on the other reason they are here.

"Winning is important. Don't get us wrong," Leonard said. "We take it seriously."

Last season, Franklin went 8-2 and 7-1 in the HCAC, and Leonard broke the school wins record when he marked his 121st victory, toppling the record of legendary Indiana Hall of Fame coach Stewart "Red" Faught.

"Yes, winning means something," Leonard said. "But in the grand scheme of things, it's people and how you treat people and how you help people through this life."

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