Twelve-year-old Tyler Newlin scored on his very first play, and he did it with his best friend by his side and his entire team backing him up.
And he did it from a wheelchair.
Tyler, a sixth-grader at Mary Orr Intermediate School, was born with holoprosencephaly, a birth defect that is so severe most babies die before birth. Tyler is missing a small portion of brain tissue, and has learning delays, muscle stiffness, speech and motor delays, say his parents Erik and Theressa Newlin.
None of that seemed to matter Saturday. With five seconds left in the game, quarterback Cade Gordon handed Tyler the ball, then grabbed the handles of Tyler’s wheelchair and headed for the goal line, backed by the entire Mansfield Titan squad. The opposing Arlington Mustangs pursued them valiantly, flying head over heels in attempted tackles, but Tyler rolled across the line to put six points on the scoreboard for his team. Cheerleaders for both team screamed and chanted Tyler’s name.
It was the first time he had ever touched the ball.
“They told us he would never walk, they told us he would never talk,” said his mom, Theressa Newlin. “He’s proven them all wrong. He’s our miracle baby.”
The Newlins, who have one other biological child and four adopted children, have fostered 33 children. They moved from Nevada to Mansfield in 2008 so Tyler could be part of a study at Scottish Rite Hospital for Children in Dallas.
Last year, Tyler met Cade Gordon, the Titans’ quarterback, and they quickly became friends.
“We met in robotics,” Cade, 12, said. “I came in one day and offered to help him because he was having trouble, then I started going to eat with him and now we’re here.”
Cade, who has played football since he was in kindergarten, asked if his new buddy could be on his football team. His dad and Titans coach, Alan Gordon, contacted the league, got permission and got Tyler a jersey, then a helmet, then a mouthpiece.
“He’s very demanding,” Alan Gordon said. “If I gave him a helmet, he wanted shoulder pads. He’s just excited about football.”
And he wants to play, his parents say. He’s been to all but one game, and wanted to know when he was going in.
“We had to have a conversation with him,” Theressa Newlin said. “We had to say this is one thing you cannot do. We always tell him there’s nothing you cannot do. This is not just for your safety, but everyone’s.”
His dad, Erik Newlin, said he needs to start with the basics.
“We told him if he wants to play football, first he has to learn to walk,” he said. “For him, it’s really hard.”
No one -- except Tyler -- thought he was going to get in the game. At least, not until the Titans played the Mustangs earlier this season.
“The Mustangs coach (Darin Niederhaus) came over and wanted to know who Tyler was,” said Ashley Gordon, Cade’s mom and Alan’s wife. “He said, ‘We play y’all at the end of the year. Let’s let him score a touchdown, even if it goes against us.’”
The Mustangs had a sizable lead Saturday (more than 20 points), but even if it meant his squad would lose, Tyler was going to score, Niederhaus said.
“It was going to happen regardless,” he said. “This is bigger than football. The boys staged everything. We didn’t tell them to dive and block. We just told them to celebrate in the endzone. They were as excited as he was. We teach more than football. This was an opportunity to teach life lessons.”
The Gordons say the Titans have learned a lot this season, too, even though they have only won two games.
“This season has been about so much more than winning,” Ashley Gordon said.
Cade, who won five Super Bowls with his previous team, hadn’t lost a game until last year, when his squad didn’t win a game. He’s already thrown seven or eight touchdown passes this year, so Tyler was in good hands with Cade by his side on the field -- and afterward.
When asked about the play’s game plan, Tyler paused to think and Cade leaned over and whispered “We wanted to get outside and run past everyone” in Tyler’s ear.
“I got good friends on the Titans,” Tyler said with a grin.
He has good friends off the field, too. Cade eats lunch with Tyler most days, and Coach Alan comes sometimes, too, which has helped with Tyler’s anger and frustration, his parents say.
“It’s helping with his behavior in school,” Theressa Newlin said. “If he has an outburst, he doesn’t get to eat lunch with Cade. Coach Alan comes in and says ‘You’ve got to get your work done.’ He’s getting much better.”
Cade says Tyler is a buddy that he can talk to about football and Star Wars. And he is an inspiration.
“He gives me a passion to work harder,” Cade said. “Any time I think I can’t do something, I think about him and work harder.”