Before the huddle breaks, he is already moving toward the ball.
The clap of his teammates about to join him slides into the holes of his light blue helmet as he squats into position and reaches for the ball.
Around him, band sounds pep up the noise inside the Legends Stadium in Lewes, Delaware, cheerleaders shimmy their pom-poms and members of the crowd raise their voices.
Eyes forward, he is in control.
This is war.
This is Julian Medina.
He knows every play for every position, but there is only one thing on the Cape Henlopen High School senior center’s mind: his assignment.
Nothing gives Julian more of a sense of pride than a pancake block.
Nothing makes him feel further from a boy with a disability, who just wanted to fit in.
From biting himself and slamming his head against the ground, Julian has become a young man who is sensitive, caring and, most of all, respectful.
Julian is autistic, but that does not define who he is — nor has he let it.
People thought he couldn’t play football. People thought he couldn’t speak.
Life hasn’t been easy.
“I didn’t care what people said,” he says. “‘You’re going to get hurt. You can’t play because you have autism.’”
A family’s struggle
Understanding Julian’s story means knowing his family.
His mother, Nina Ritter, was a Marine. His grandfather, John Macki, and his great uncles were also Marines. Football is Julian’s war because that’s where his family comes from.
Ritter knows she is not the Marine mother of three she expected to be.
Autism changed everything.
Timeouts didn’t work.
And Julian isn’t the only autistic child in their Lewes home.
His 18-year-old brother, Nicholas Medina, was born on the severe end of the spectrum in Okinawa, Japan, on Nov. 1, 1996.
At first, Nicholas was considered a late bloomer. It seemed he didn’t pay attention and couldn’t hear. But a doctor, who had a child with autism, diagnosed Nicholas at 15 months as “extremely autistic” at the Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Bethesda, Maryland.
Ritter didn’t know what to do. She had one autistic child just diagnosed, and Julian was born soon after on Jan. 23, 1998.
With Julian, she immediately recognized the autistic mannerisms she had missed with Nicholas.
And the Marine Corps couldn’t offer proper care for the Medina family.
While searching for help, she and her husband, Christopher Medina, had different views on life. He did not want the Marine life anymore but she did, and the couple split in 1999.
Ritter wouldn’t be here if it weren’t for her parents, John and Joan Macki.
They were there emotionally, financially, and any other time she felt like her family’s world was crumbling.
“They are my rock,” she says.
Finally in September 2000, she learned Delaware could offer the necessary schooling for her sons.
She moved that weekend and eventually left the Marine Corps with no pension or retirement.
It’s a decision she would never come to regret, as Nicholas and Julian started in the Sussex Consortium Program the next day.
The program allows students with disabilities in the Cape Henlopen School District to get the extra one-on-one help needed to acclimate into the classroom while learning the necessary life skills to live on their own. The students are eligible to stay in the program until they are 21 or until they get their high school diploma.
“That program is God-send,” Ritter says.
“Julian as you see him now was not that way when we first got here. He was non-verbal. He self-injured. He was frustrated and very rigid.”
The road was not easy, but there was one surprise along the way.
After Julian was born, Ritter had a tubectomy. Her hands were full.
She was married again in 2002. After she came home from her honeymoon, she felt sick.
But it wasn’t a virus. It was another baby on the way. After nine months of worrying she had another autistic child on the way, her daughter, Margaret Ritter, was born healthy as can be in 2003.
While the second marriage did not work, Margaret has been a gift to the family.
“She has been the nurturer,” Ritter says. “She has pulled Nick and Julian out of their shell.”
From the time Julian first started speaking, he just wanted to be like the other children.
This is how Julian and his brother are different.
Nicholas always has a smile on his face thanks to the progress he’s made with the Consortium Program.
“He’s unaffected by people,” Ritter says. “People shush him in the movie theater, look at him funny. Nick just smiles and goes on his way, but Julian is so aware, so self-aware, that when people treat him that way, he knows.”
Julian knows he has autism. He knows he can’t change it, but he tried desperately when he was younger and still wasn’t accepted socially.
This is the hardest part of being Julian’s mother, Ritter says.
But the Consortium Program has helped changed all of that.
Julian couldn’t stand being yelled at. He also felt people were always talking about him. Conversations would drop as soon as he walked by because people felt uncomfortable around him.
Other students didn’t understand why he would squeeze his hands around his face, or why he would get upset so easily.
“I had friends but they were in the Consortium Program,” Julian says. “I did have a couple friends out in the mainstream, but I didn’t really talk to them too much when I got to middle school because they felt unconformable being around me because of the way I acted.”
Vivian Bush met Julian in 2002. Now the principal of the program, she was first his psychologist.
He could destroy a room in a heartbeat. Because of his attention to food texture, he could only drink water and eat crackers.
But that was then. These days, Bush says it’s all very mild.
As Julian learned control, his social acceptance slowly got better.
A self-taught musician who can crank out a Dave Mathews Band or Johnny Cash song, he had all the same interests as any other growing boy: friends, girlfriends and sports.
Football played a significant role in that, Bush says.
“He has worked so hard,” she says. “It’s him, not us. He has wanted to fit in since elementary school. He has often said, ‘I just want to fit in. I want to be out of the Consortium.’ Those were his goals that he set for himself.”
Blossoming into the Julian of Today
She hates to say it now, but Ritter was afraid to allow Julian to play football.
She had no idea what could happen. If something went wrong, Julian could react, and the situation could have taken a turn for the worse.
Administrators at his middle school were also unsure if Julian should play.
However, the coaches thought differently.
“Mike Saez and Alphonso Evans said, ‘You let us worry about him. We’ll spend extra time if we need to,’ ” Ritter says. “They did just that.”
The coaches worked with Julian and he flourished.
Football, along with wrestling, music and weight lifting, gave Julian a positive image of himself.
Not just a kid with autism.
His grandfather has attended every one of his games. Ritter still only watches Julian. Where the ball goes doesn’t matter.
“For the first time, he wasn’t the autistic kid,” Ritter says. “He was No. 54, the left guard. That was a great day for me. That took a weight off my shoulders because he has always felt that he is not accepted.”
This is why America is the greatest country in the world, Cape Henlopen head football coach Bill Collick says.
No matter what, a person still has the chance to make the best of a difficult situation. There’s always an opportunity, and Julian has taken it.
He is just one of the guys. Sure, at first some kids found it difficult approaching him in eighth grade and high school, but it’s been a complete change since Julian’s younger years.
He’s just one of the guys, Collick says, ordering around freshmen just like any other senior would.
“He’s turned something that someone may say is a disability into a positive,” Collick says. “I’m extremely proud of him, and I’m extremely proud of our program being able to extend the opportunity.
“Our kids don’t see anything. It’s just Julian.”
One of the teammates Julian is close with is starting quarterback Dillon Adams. The two started together on junior varsity last season and have built a solid friendship.
The two have a connection. They always need to be on the same page, and Adams has always been Julian’s favorite quarterback to work with.
Autism has nothing to do with it.
“He’s just a best friend,” Adams says. “I don’t even really realize it. He’s a friend. You don’t even think about it.
“You love him for who he is.”
The Dream and Leaving a Legacy
When Julian walks across the stage at graduation this spring, he will not receive a diploma.
Despite all of his efforts, the stress of making up for years of missed work became too much for him.
He worked before and after school to try and make up the classes while maintaining a high enough GPA to play sports.
Julian is at a sophomore’s education level, but has until age 21 to stay in the Consortium Program and continue learning.
“His dream (is to play) college football, this is it,” Ritter says. “This year is it. Unless someone was to come forward and say, ‘Hey, you know what, we’re going to afford you the same opportunity as Michael Oher. We’ll get you an around-the-clock tutor, we’ll get you what you need.’ ”
But life is not like a movie, even though the “The Blind Side” is based on a true story.
Julian would need to receive his diploma and find a university willing to work with him on the educational level while in college and playing football.
But he certainly has the football skills.
Recruiters have emailed and called the family’s home asking, “What is your son preparing to do at the next level?”
When Ritter explains he has autism and his needs, the conversation ends.
She has tried everything and recently started a GoFundMe Campaign to help with Julian’s tutoring. As a single mom, driving auto parts around for NAPA while trying to put herself through nursing school, a one-on-one tutor for Julian just isn’t in the budget.
But she would do anything for him.
Julian says he will play college football or become a Marine, even though he and his mom have had talks of the likelihood of both.
It’s not that he doesn’t understand there’s only a small chance he will play college football, it’s just that his belief in himself is stronger. People have told him his entire life he couldn’t do things.
It’s what drives him to make his mark like the centers before him at Cape Henlopen.
“I feel like it’s my turn to do something,” Julian says. “To go out there and give it my best like they did. I feel like I’m taking their place of what they’ve done. I feel that it’s my turn to leave a legacy.”
For those who know him, Julian has already left a mark at Cape Henlopen.
He has shown that just because someone is autistic, it doesn’t mean they’re any different. And it certainly means they can play sports.
“When a lot of people think about autism, they think of a kid who can’t talk,” Julian says, “who can’t do anything. I hate when they think about it like that because I take that personally.
“Just because you got a disability of autism doesn’t mean you can’t go out for sports. Don’t let me say, ‘You can’t do this, you can’t do that’ just because you’ve got a disability. Who cares? Go out for it.”
On Twitter/Instagram: @ByRyanMarshall