As the Middlesex County All-Stars gathered for their initial practice at East Brunswick High School last week, game director Marcus Borden instructed the team to take a knee in front of the north end zone.
The veteran East Brunswick coach wanted to tell players about Chris Kania, a four-year member of Borden’s own gridiron program and the most significant participant in MyCentralJersey.com Snapple Bowl XIX.
“Many of you might not know who Chris is,” Borden explained. “Maybe you’ve read about him, but you’ve never met him in person.
“Maybe because you play in another division you never saw him up close and personal in our games. Chris wants to be just like you in every way possible. He may not be in certain respects, but he embodies the spirit of the game.”
Kania, a student with developmental disabilities who is part of East Brunswick’s functional academic program, designed to prepare students with disabilities for life after high school, will play running back in Thursday’s 19th annual charity all-star game.
All proceeds from the event benefit Children’s Specialized Hospital and the Lakeview School, a program of the New Jersey Institute for Disabilities.
Kickoff for the game, which has raised more than $370,000 since its inception, is 7 p.m.
The Middlesex County All-Stars have embraced Kania, whose legend began in East Brunswick’s 2009 home opener against Monroe, when he ran the Bears’ first play from scrimmage for an 80-yard touchdown.
A year later, Kania was a national finalist for the Rudy Award, named after former University of Notre Dame football player Rudy Ruettiger and presented to a student-athlete who overcomes adversity.
A similar prearrangement, like that between Borden and Monroe coach Chris Beagan three years ago, will allow Kania to score in Thursday’s game against the Union County All-Stars.
Kania’s touchdown, however, will be no gift.
The 19-year-old has worked just as hard and been just as dedicated as every other player in the game, attending almost every single one of East Brunswick’s practices and off-season workouts for the past four years.
Kania’s on-field participation with the gridiron team involved minimal contact including blocking and tackling drills.
Through football, Kania learned basic skills such as counting and getting dressed.
He has a greater understanding of responsibility. The friendships he’s made while playing the sport have improved Kania’s social skills – he personally invited East Brunswick mayor David Stahl to the game – and bolstered his confidence.
“It’s hard for him to make and keep friends,” said Kania’s mother, Bonnie. “He has a couple of friends that have stayed with him from the (East Brunswick) football program.
“Everybody (at the Snapple Bowl) has been great to him. He keeps telling me every day now when he comes home (from practice) how nice all of the boys from the other teams are to him.”
Kania has moderate cognitive impairment, likely the result of not receiving enough oxygen during Bonnie’s pregnancy.
“He has what they call global delays, where he is basically delayed in everything,” Bonnie explained. “He does have a low IQ. He’s delayed in his understanding. He can’t read that well. He has to memorize words. If you give him a bunch of coins, you’ll probably confuse him a little bit. But there’s never been any behavioral issue. It’s all cognitive.
“As far as intellectually, I don’t think there’s going to be a lot of improvement. However, I believe he’s able to adjust to a situation if it’s called for.”
Bonnie attributes Chris’ adaptability, in part, to his involvement with Borden’s football program and to the tutelage of loving East Brunswick special education teachers Lois Moskowitz and Maria Canzano.
Before enrolling at East Brunswick, Kania attended a school for developmentally disabled students.
“While the special school was really great, I needed for him to fly,” Bonnie said. “I needed for him not to be coddled so much. I needed for him to be independent, to find his way around school, to figure out his classes, to do things like anybody else.
“I don’t think he would have gotten that at a special school. I think the transition (to adult life) would have been more difficult.”
Kania, who must adhere to NJSIAA regulations, exhausted his four years of athletic eligibility, but can remain in the high school’s functional academic program for two more years, at which time he will officially graduate.
Chris was able to walk last month to the tune of Pomp and Circumstance with his sister, Adriana, a former East Brunswick football manager who serves in that capacity for the Middlesex All-Stars.
Adriana wrote a poignant and powerful poem for a high school English class, entitled “Special,” about her admiration for Chris, who she calls “The best gift God has given me.”
Bonnie and others couldn’t make it through the nine stanzas without crying.
“Chris has come up to her several times during Snapple Bowl practice asking, ‘Should I be doing this? Should I be doing that?’ It always makes me feel good that she’s there with him. He may not say it, but I think that he really appreciates it.
“Frankly, they fight like cats and dogs, as all siblings do. They irritate each other terribly. But when she wrote that poem, it just blew me away, because sometimes you worry – What’s going to happen when I’m not here? But (the poem) really showed me that I have nothing to worry about.”
The long-term prospect for Chris, who works for a couple hours with supervision each Saturday at a local Edible Arrangements franchise, remains uncertain.
He is, however, guaranteed a spot for the next two years as a “graduate assistant” with Borden’s football program.
“He will work individually with different coaches every day and learn a little bit about how to help out,” Borden said. “He will set up drills and do other things. Hopefully he will continue to encourage all of his teammates to be successful. By taking on a different role, he can stay around the game he loves.”
Kania has taught his classmates, East Brunswick’s opponents and now his Snapple Bowl teammates that developmentally disabled students are no different from themselves, a paramount component of mainstreaming in education.
During the Middlesex All-Stars visit earlier this week to the Lakeview School, which teaches nearly 200 students with multiple disabilities, Chris may have felt more comfortable in that sometimes intimidating environment that any other player or cheerleader.
“Chris has always had all types of kids in his classes – kids in wheelchairs, kids that can’t communicate – so it doesn’t faze him,” Bonnie said. “He understands that some people don’t have the same capabilities as he does. He accepts those people.”
Those unfamiliar with Kania’s story may be left scratching their heads when he scores a touchdown Thursday night, reacting similarly to some in the crowd at East Brunswick’s 2009 home opener.
Most, however, will recognize No. 65 in the navy blue jersey as the trail-blazer who opened the door for other developmentally disabled students in his class, some who have gone on to serve as managers for or to participate on other East Brunswick sports programs.
“It’s an important role,” Bonnie said of her son raising the bar for classmates and encouraging others to follow Borden’s lead by giving developmentally disabled students a chance.
“I don’t think Chris totally understands that he is a trendsetter because in his world, he’s no different than anybody else, which is great. Obviously, not everybody is going to be able to participate, but I think they should just be given the chance.”
Kania doesn’t know yet whether the touchdown play Borden will call for him in Snapple Bowl XIX will be a run or a pass. He just knows play call “Check C” is designed to hit paydirt.
As the Union County defense parts like the Red Sea, creating a gaping hole for which Kania can run through, the wide-open path is not just for No. 65, but for developmentally disabled student-athletes everywhere.