It’s homecoming night for All Saints Episcopal and 6-foot-5 quarterback Foster Sawyer bounces up and down behind an inflatable tunnel in the north end of the end zone at McNair Stadium. * Sawyer pats what appears to be an undersized assistant coach on the back. * “Are you ready to run out with us?” he shouts over the pregame music. * The assistant coach smiles and nods enthusiastically. * The pair, side by side, follow their teammates through the tunnel and onto the field, ready for battle. * The assistant coach, standing at a generous 5-foot even, is 50-year-old James Gresham, uncle of Saints running back and Louisville recruit Daniel Gresham. James, who has Down syndrome, was named an honorary coach by All Saints head coach Aaron Beck earlier this season.
“We took James to [an All Saints] football game to watch Daniel play,” said Charita Gresham, the tailback’s mother and James’ sister-in-law. “Coach Beck invited him down on the sideline with the team. He was standing all by himself behind the players, trying to stay out of the way when Foster walked over to him.”
Then Sawyer did what those who know him best wouldn’t be surprised to hear. He asked James to come stand next to him.
James had been thrilled just to be asked down on the field but now there he was, watching the game with the team’s best player.
In his second season at All Saints, Sawyer has led his team to the 2012 Southwest Preparatory Conference state championship and a combined 19-0 record while throwing for a total of 5,020 yards and 65 touchdowns. He committed to TCU last spring, and has received offers from 16 Division I schools.
“Football gets so much attention but it’s still just kids playing a game,” Beck said. “The relationship that James has with the team means so much more than wins and losses.”
On Fridays, James wakes early and is so eager for the night’s game that he sometimes puts on his coach’s uniform before breakfast.
“We have to calm him down,” Charita said. “He’s so excited to get to the field and be around the team. He just loves Foster so much.”
“My favorite player is Daniel,” said James, referring to his nephew. “But I love Foster. I love him because he’s my friend and because he’s so tall!”
The friendship is no front. Sawyer is serious about helping others, something he learned from quietly observing his sister at a young age.
The fourth of five children, Sawyer grew up idolizing his older siblings. He was particularly fond of his sister, Tara, who played baseball on an all boys team and spent a large majority of her time witnessing her faith to friends and family.
“She was a pitcher and second baseman,” Sawyer said. “She hated to lose, just like me, but she knew how to turn [her competitive streak] off when she stepped off the field. She was the most genuine person I’ve ever known.”
In 2002, following a summer baseball tournament, the family spent a weekend at Cedar Creek Lake near Athens relaxing, swimming, eating snow cones and enjoying their time together.
But something was amiss. Tara seemed to disappear every few hours, complaining of a bad headache and stomach pain.
Three days later, the family found themselves at Cook Children’s hospital in Fort Worth. What had started as a family vacation turned into their worst nightmare. Tara was diagnosed with amebic meningoencephalitis, a rare brain infection contracted through contaminated water. Tara died the next day. She was just 10 years old.
At the behest of some close family friends, the Sawyers decided to organize a baseball tournament in honor of their daughter. Just eight teams participated that first year, but the family soldiered on, committing to making the tournament a yearly tradition, eventually naming it the Tara Sawyer Classic.
“It was slow going at first but once it caught on it grew pretty quickly,” Foster said.
The tournament has been so successful, in fact, that the family now uses nine locations to host the more than 400 Little League teams that participate throughout the week.
In recent years, Foster has volunteered to speak to the participants on behalf of the family, sometimes presenting the tournament’s Barnabas Award, honoring Christian character.
He is serious about personal responsibility and the opportunity he has to reach out to others, thanks to the visibility provided by his football career.
“I’ve dreamed about this for a long time,” Sawyer said. “I love playing the game of football and if I can bring more attention to the tournament through that then I’ve done my job. Tara is a big part of who I am and I want to honor her every chance I get.”
The young man with the golden arm and big heart is wise beyond his years.
“If I can do in my lifetime what she was able to do in her 10 years on Earth then I’ve lived a pretty good life.”