Aayden Gilbert, a 9-year-old boy from Salamanca, just wanted to play football like his friends.
The cochlear implant hearing aid he’s had since December 2015 made it unsafe for him to play contact sports, so he had to drop wrestling and lacrosse. According to his mom, Amber Hoffman, “it broke his heart” to learn the implant would prevent Aayden from serving in the Army like his dad, Sean Gilbert.
Aayden still plays soccer, basketball and baseball, and his parents asked the Salamanca Warriors youth football organization if he could help out as a water boy.
“I said, 'Well, can he run?'” Warriors peewee coach Jason Wass recalled. “They said, yeah. So he started doing the exercises and running and anything that wasn't contact with us. He's been down here every day since, doing it with us. He doesn't miss practice, he comes here and works hard, fills his water bottles on top of doing all of that stuff.”
Wass and his assistant coaches hatched a plan to reward their young water boy for his hard work. He spoke with Salamanca Sabers coach Greg Herrick about allowing the boy one play suited up in pads and a uniform, where he would run untouched, past the Sabers defense to score a touchdown on the first snap of Saturday night’s crosstown rivalry game.
“He was completely on board, Greg does a lot for kids too and understands, so we thought (it was) a right time and perfect time for him,” Wass said. “He deserves his shot.”
So on Saturday at Crowley Park, Aayden ran free, taking his carry off-tackle from past midfield to score on his first ever football play. His mom sat in the stands where she said she “bawled my eyes out.”
“That was the moment that he was waiting for all season,” she said. “He's always wanted to play football, so for them to actually allow him to do that, even though he can't really physically play, that just meant a lot to him.”
While the Sabers would go on to a 30-13 victory, morale lifted on the Warriors’ sideline. Wass said his older teammates appreciated the moment while some eight-year-olds wondered how the Sabers didn’t tackle him. Aayden walked off the field, took his seat on the bench, removing his helmet to show a wide grin.
“He was pumped,” Wass said. “He had a smile from ear-to-ear. I think it made him feel good, he finally feels like he's part of the team. It was a good thing for him. I'm glad that the Sabers worked with us and let us do it.”
Wass had told Aayden of his plan the week before after clearing the play with Herrick and his CCMFL commissioner.
“I told (Aayden) and the first thing he said was, ‘When can I get my pads?’” Wass said. “He was pumped and I said we'll wait until next week and every day was, ‘Can I get my pads next week?’ He was very pumped about it.”
(Sports editor Sam Wilson may be contacted at email@example.com)