‘12th Man’ football takes kids who would be sidelined, makes stars
Sep 30, 2019 05:13PM
By Justin Adams
Evan shows off his Number 12 jersey. (Photo provided by Stacy Allen)
By Mark Jackson | [email protected]
In 2011, Brandi and Travis Jacobsen received news that their son, Tate, would be born with an extremely rare syndrome. However, they were optimistic.
“From the minute we saw the ultrasound, my husband and I wondered, ‘how are we going to involve him?” Brandi said.
Athletic pursuits are an important part of the family — both Brandi and Travis are on the Board of the Mountain Ridge Football program. Their son Hunter plays football, and their two daughters are cheerleaders.
Perhaps Tate, who faced several limitations, would never play football; however, Brandi and Travis were confident they could include their son.
Tate passed away in early 2013, but Brandi and Travis never stopped wondering how they could have helped Tate — and other kids like him — to live life to the fullest.
Six years later, in 2019, a conversation about the Jacobsens’ nephew, Porter (who is diagnosed with Mosaic Down Syndrome), sparked the idea for the 12th Man program.
“How could we get the football players — the biggest, toughest guys in the school — to take care of the special needs kids?” Travis said.
The 12th Man program is designed to embrace boys and girls who cannot play football and integrate them as important members of the team.
These children often have special needs, but some simply can’t play football: one 12th Man team member has repeated concussions that prevent him from playing.
New “12th Men” can be nominated by peers, parents, or coaches. They receive free, custom team jerseys with the number “12” and their first name — all funded by an anonymous sponsor.
12th Man teammates participate in parties and spirit rallies alongside players and often exit tunnels to begin games or decide coin tosses. They cheer the team on, offering encouragement.
As a result of the program, “12th men” parents, such as Stacy and McKay Allen, see their children forming genuine friendships with football players and fans.
Brandi Jacobsen sees former strangers calling delighted “12th Men” by their names and offering high fives and encouragement. Her own son, once uncertain how to interact with his special-needs peers, now approaches them happily.
Heather, the mother of “12th Man,” Porter, said her son has always been reserved and uncertain. However, thanks to his football player teammates, he is becoming bold.
“They push him,” she said. “It’s cool to see these kids step up. It’s helped Porter gain the confidence to just go.”
However, as much as the program gives to the “12th Men,” the football players may actually receive more.
When Brandi and Travis’ son, Hunter, injured his knee, he laid on the sideline in pain.
12th Man Max Brown navigated his wheelchair to Hunter’s side and held his hand, telling him to persist. Brandi and Travis were brought to tears as they heard Max tell Hunter he would be alright, that he could walk, and that he would play again.
Jaxson, an 8-year-old center, is happy to see his younger brother with special needs on the field: “It’s exciting having Evan there,” he said, and draws motivation from his presence.
Jaxson’s coach, Matt Anderson, made Evan a team captain and gave him a whistle to blow at practices. Evan’s energy and enthusiasm are infectious, visibly lifting the players’ spirits after a tough half or mistake.
Coach Anderson sees football as an opportunity to teach kids to be compassionate, persistent people, “and the 12th Man program goes hand in hand with that,” he said.
Further, by placing “12th Men’s” names on jerseys, and creating an opportunity to interact with special-needs kids, Brandi believes the program has stripped away barriers.
“[Kids with special needs] are really good at breaking down the barriers themselves,” she said. “They just need to know you’re a safe person.”
“Yes, the kids are learning football,” said parent Stacy Allen, “But they’ll look back and realize they learned compassion, too.”
The program has grown rapidly, inspiring area schools to explore their own programs.
Brandi dreams about schools across the country founding their own 12th Man programs to include kids like her son Tate.
Even though Tate isn’t here to participate in the 12th Man program himself, Brandi sees it as part of his legacy:
“When your child dies, it’s like, ‘how could we honor him?’ Without him, we probably wouldn’t have even had the idea to do this.”
For more information or to nominate a 12th man at Mountain Ridge Football, visit mountainridgefootball.org/sentinels-12th-man.
You can read more about Brandi and Travis’ story at stuckwithus.com