SANGER — Perhaps the most exciting runs the Sanger Indians football team will witness this season will come before every game’s opening kickoff and the first snap, and will havenothing to do with scoring a touchdown.
But like a week ago, they could very well help inspire the Indians to victories this season.
Blake Pyron and Austin Waters suit up every Friday night in a Sanger jersey, but their contribution to the Indians’ effort now extends well beyond their “Water Team” responsibilities of keeping the players refreshed with cold drinks and towels during the game.
This season, when the team comes out of the locker room and before it makes its way to the sideline, Pyron and Waters have been awarded the prestigious role of leading the Indians out of the tunnel and onto the field — an honor bestowed on the two friends by their Sanger teammates.
Pyron and Waters, who both live with Down syndrome, will never play a down for the Indians. But they’ve been among the team’s biggest supporters — in voice and action — for the last two seasons. They work the sidelines during games providing the players with water and encouragement and occasionally turn to the crowd to serve as momentary Indians cheerleaders.
And now, thanks to an idea initiated by senior defensive end Dalton Hassell, one of Sanger’s four captains, Pryon and Waters are the team’s leaders of the pack when it comes to running onto the field prior to kickoff.
“Blake would be playing football if he didn’t have limitations,” said his mother, Mary Ann Pyron. “So for him to be on the Water Team is great. Then for the team to actually reach out to him and have him run out with the team, that’s real special.”
Hassell has known Pyron and Waters since they attended elementary school together and last year Hassell was a mentoring pal to Pyron at Sanger High. Earlier this month, after seeing a video clip of the Nebraska football team in which a young fan suffering from cancer was given the chance to run for a touchdown in the Cornhuskers’ spring game, Hassell decided that Pyron and Waters should have a bigger role with the team beyond helping out along the sideline.
So he called Pyron’s mother and offered his suggestion to her. Mary Ann Pyron discussed the idea with Blake and Waters’ family while Hassell sought approval for the proposal from the Sanger coaches.
The idea became a reality before Sanger’s home opener against Liberty Christian on Sept. 6.
“We had a captains meeting and then I pulled the coaches aside and talked to them,” said Hassell, a 17-year-old senior. “I wanted to make sure it was cleared by my coaches before that Friday.
“Blake and Austin were there all last year when we lost, filling our water bottles and handing us towels,”he added. “They’ve just been huge supporters of Sanger, and I figured I’d giveback to them by letting them run out of the tunnel. I know they love it.”
Once the team gathered underneath the inflatable tunnel, the players were told that Pyron and Waters were going to lead them onto the field and through a big poster held by the cheerleaders. Hassell instructed his teammates to make sure they didn’t run too fast and overcome their new on-field leaders.
“When we got out there, you could tell they were excited and ready to run,” said senior lineman Dylan Welborn. “They were standing there waiting for us to give them the signal. As soon as we got it, they took off. They were laughing and smiling the whole way.”
With arms raised to the sky and smiles reaching ear to ear, Pyron and Waters made the run of their life forthe first time in what became a loss to the Warriors.
Last Friday, however, the Indians snapped a 14-game losing streak by thumping Pilot Point 50-17 at Indian Stadium.
So now, in addition to being the team’s leaders coming onto the field, Pyron and Waters are now called the Indians’ lucky charms.
“The looks on their faces ...I just cried,” said Mary Ann Pyron. “It was pure joy.”
Blake Pyron and Waters were born two weeks apart and have grown up together since they attended kindergarten together. And the Pyron family has been deeply involved in Sanger football: Blake’s older brother, Mitchell, played several years ago and now Blake has nephews who play and nieces who are cheerleaders.
“Blake loves the Sanger Indians, and he loves football,” said Mary Ann Pyron. “He wanted to play football like his big brother. Everybody’s involved so, of course, we wanted Blake to be involved. For him to actually be able to run out and lead the team onto the field is very wonderful.”
And the two boys’personalities fit perfectly in their new role as inspirational leaders as the team comes onto the field.
“He [Pyron] brightens everybody’s day,” said Hassell. “If you’re having a bad day, if you walk by him in the halls, he’ll give you a high five and your day is instantly better.”
“Austin is awesome,” added Welborn. “And Blake is the happiest kid you’ll ever meet in your life. He’s always smiling, always laughing.”
Beginning this week, the Indians play consecutive games on the road and it’s unclear whether the two friends will fill the role of leading the team out onto the field at away games.
“If they’re at away games,I’d be glad to let them do it,” said Hassell. “If they go, they can do it.”
In the meantime, Pyron and Waters, both 17, are living a dream-come-true opportunity.
“For them to run in front of us, it really gets them excited,” said Welborn. “I think I’m enjoying it as much as they are. I love having those guys out on the field with us. It wouldn’t be the same without them.”
Mary Ann Pyron is overjoyed that her son is getting to experience a whole new role with the team.
“He’s happy, he’s involved,and he’s having the full high school experience,” she said.
Blake Pyron and Austin Waters, it seems, are also making a run at being inspirational lucky charms.