NOVI, Mich. — There might be no crying in baseball, but in football it’s the cool thing to do.
Early in the second quarter of Novi’s varsity home football game with South Lyon, there wasn’t a dry eye in the house as players from both teams and bleachers, along with fans and coaches, arose in unison and cheered wildly when number 24, Novi special needs senior Robby Heil, ran in for a 36-yard touchdown.
After the untimed, scripted play came with 10:59 left in the first half, players from both teams mobbed Heil in the end zone.
It was an emotional scene to say the least as 5-foot-5, 150-pound Heil, whom Novi head coach Jeff Burnside affectionately calls his “hydration engineer,” took a handoff from quarterback Alec Bageris and rambled into the end zone.
“Robby went the wrong way,” Burnside chuckled. “He was supposed to come left, but fortunately me as the coach I thought all week in practice right, right, right . . . just because sometimes you’re a right-handed team. I said the student section is over here and we should be running it that way. We practiced it pregame to the left, but he reverted back to practice time, and he went right. But it was alright, it was good.”
Heil’s mother Debbie, who is undergoing her second bout of cancer, joined the Novi and East players in the end zone for the celebration.
“I can’t even talk about in words or I’ll start crying again,” Debbie said during halftime. “Coach Burnside was the one that made this happen and I’m just so blessed that he was able to talk to the South Lyon coach (Joe Pesci) and make this happen. Did you see South Lyon people stand up and have banners of 24?”
East also presented Robby with a signed No. 1 jersey with all their names on it. And although the Cougars came out on the wrong end of a 42-14 final, it was all good.
“Jeff called me last week just to kind of put it out there and we had a pretty good plan on how about going about doing it,” Pesci said. “It was just kind of something that we were honored to be a part of. It was just really special for Robby and just everybody here. Our players, I told them about it yesterday. They embraced it. They wanted to give him a No. 1 jersey and everybody signed it. So we did that once he scored. What a cool moment for him and his family. We were just honored to be a part of it and help celebrate something like that.”
Burnside feels indebted to East and Pesci for making it happen.
“I’m so glad the East kids were here,” the Novi coach said. “Coach Pesci over there, an outstanding human being. Very classy kids. They came up with the idea of giving Robby a signed jersey. It was better than I could have even imagined. It was just outstanding.”
Senior running back Nathan Hankerson, who rushed for a school record 276 yards in the Novi victory, was also caught up in the excitement of the TD.
“The team loves Robby, just a great moment for him, the team and Novi in general, just nice to create that moment for him and his family,” he said. “We practiced that play 10-to-15 times to get that right. We knew we didn’t want anybody to touch him and we just wanted to get him in the end zone. It made it a great night.”
“We practiced it Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday,” Robby said after the game. “The boys did a good job. They said, ‘Let’s go Robby.'”
Burnside had informed Robby’s father Chuck of the plan earlier in the week, but Debbie didn’t get an inkling what was going to occur until the night before the game.
“He was talking about it all week long and I told Robby you’ve got to help Anthony (D’Annibale) with his plays because he’s hurt,” Debbie said. ‘And I said, ‘Robby, they need you as water boy’ because I did not know this was happening. I was surprised when I found out last night when my son came home. My son (Charles) came in from college (Michigan State) on a bus to go see his brother.”
Robby Heil came to Burnside’s program as a freshman and has been a fixture ever since.
“Every year we’ve given him a little more responsibility and every year he does great. I’m hoping we can keep him next year. Technically he’s a senior, but I hope we can keep him next year because he actually helps out a ton.”
Burnside said Heil makes his day go a little easier when he’s around.
“We just want to give back a little bit,” the Novi coach said. “Use the game for what it should be for, which is create memories and do some good. He’s just a wonderful kid. If only our kids could attack the day with his joy and enthusiasm, we’d be a lot better off and the world would be a better place.”