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By Sandy Stevens
Editor’s Note: The following column first appeared in WIN, Volume 19, Issue 3, and printed Dec. 18, 2012.
When two seventh-graders met on a mat Nov. 29 in suburban Nashville, little did they know they were offering more than half a million fans a holiday gift beyond words.
An inspiring video of a 90-pound match between Sunset Middle School’s Jared Stevens, who has severe cerebral palsy, and Freedom Middle School team captain Justin Kievit has gone viral across the nation and beyond.
The video begins as assistant coach Jon Sandella places 13-year-old Jared on the mat. Justin shakes Jared’s hand, the whistle blows and — pulling Jared’s arm over his own body — Justin gives up a takedown and near-fall points before Jared scores a pin.
But anyone who sees this video — you can find it at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ao8UbgSopD4 — knows that both boys are winners.
“This is about courage and character in both those kids,” said Phil Stevens, Jared’s dad.
Jared’s coach, Clay Mayes, and Justin’s coach, Randy Stevens (no relation to Jared) have known each other for 20 years, but Coach Stevens (whose own team includes a 12-year-old double amputee) had never heard of Jared until just before the meet began.
The teams had weighed in and warmed up when Coach Mayes asked Coach Stevens, “Do you have a really good kid with a great big heart who’d be willing to wrestle Jared? He’s never gotten on the mat.”
“Immediately, I knew which kid would be the right one,” Randy Stevens recalled. “Justin’s the first seventh-grade captain I’ve ever had. He just stood out as a sixth-grader, showing leadership qualities. He’s always helping his teammates.
“There was no time for Justin to think,” noted Jared’s dad. “The coach literally turned around and pulled him out of the lineup, and that’s all the preparation he had.
“Justin did that all on his own,” Coach Stevens said. “I was so proud of him and proud of Jared also for striving to do what they want to do.”
Justin’s two older brothers also wrestled in middle school, and Jared, one of triplet brothers, also has an older sister and brother. Last year, Jared joined his siblings on the football team; in the final play of one game, his teammates placed the ball in his lap and pushed his wheelchair across the goal line for a TD.
This fall, though, Jared wanted to wrestle.
“We’ve always encouraged our children, especially around middle school age, to try out difference sports,” Phil Stevens said. “Of course, our kids have been wrestling for years at home. We’ve got four boys and a girl, and somebody, whether they’re supposed to or not, was always putting hands on somebody’s body!”
Jared passed his physical, got updated vaccinations and started practice.
“The next logical step for a 13-year-old boy is getting a match,” Phil Stevens said. “The coaches brought him in in kind of an assistant coach role, but he said he felt like he could do more.
“Physically he’s greatly limited. He knows what the moves are called, but he can’t do them. During practice, he’s always yelling: ‘Change level’ ‘Half!’ or ‘Bridge.’”
So when Jared’s coaches asked his dad about giving the boy a match, Phil Stevens replied, “Put him out there!”
Now the 90-second video has gained worldwide attention, the wrestlers themselves are taking it in stride.
“Justin’s not an attention-seeking kid; he’s very down-to-earth,” Coach Stevens said. “His teammates kept asking, ‘Aren’t you excited?’ and he said, ‘Yeah, I’m excited, but I’m more concerned about my history test tomorrow.’”
Justin’s dad Craig, who coaches youth sports in the community, told Coach Stevens, “Thank you so much for giving Justin the opportunity to do the right thing.”
Strangers from coast-to-coast have let the boys’ families and coaches know how much the video has touched them, offering comments such as “Thank you for restoring my faith in humanity” and “Thank you for giving hope to this generation.”
The video’s impact has prompted Jared’s dad ask, “Is there something we feel is lacking in our culture? Is there a need that this is touching on?”
Coach Stevens noted, “The whole atmosphere of our school, the entire culture has changed. My wife said she thinks everyone’s so starved for positive news or positive experiences.”
Stevens, who coaches other middle school teams, said wrestling — more than any other sport — provides that affirmation.
“Every year,” Coach Stevens said, “something in wrestling happens that makes you say, ‘That was great character.’”
This season, even Ebenezer Scrooge would approve.