APPLETON — The biggest wins in high school football are often beyond the scoreboard.
For Will Carroll, an Appleton North High School senior who has Asperger syndrome, those wins come in the form of confidence, responsibility and a growing sense of commitment to a cause.
Will is the team manager for the Lightning football team, a position he’s held for four years, and when North faces Eau Claire Memorial Saturday in the Level 2 playoffs, Will will be as much a part of the team as the starting quarterback and the star linebacker.
“It’s meant a lot,” Will said of how the team has embraced him. “I like being part of the team and fitting in.”
The manager role comes with big responsibilities, whether making sure the players are properly hydrated or keeping the equipment repaired and organized.
Make no mistake: he’s fully part of the team.
On senior night, Will ran through the tunnel of teammates along with the team’s other seniors.
Coach Rob Salm gets emotional when talking about Will and his growth over four years. He arrived as a freshman with a sense of humor but a shortage of self-esteem, confidence and work ethic.
The coach understood that Will has Asperger syndrome, an autism spectrum disorder characterized by difficulties in social interaction and nonverbal communication. But Salm held Will to the standards of his program — just as he would any player.
Today, Will knows his role, works hard to meet team needs and has the full trust from the coaching staff. And he has a confidence that wasn’t there in years past.
Will doesn’t shy away from his autism.
“It doesn’t define me,” Will said. “It’s just a part of me.”
Will’s father, Dan Carroll, credited the culture of North’s football program in providing an environment for his son to thrive. There was anxiety as he entered high school.
The “football family” provided comfort and structure, and it’s always gone beyond — whether it is Will being introduced alongside the coaching staff or the respect he’s given by players.
“It’s really about acceptance,” his father said. “They’ve never judged him and they’ve never treated him differently.”
As a freshman, Will fell under the wing of Salm’s father, Bob, the team’s equipment manager, who’s known by students as “Papa Salm.” They’ve worked closely over the last four years and developed a friendship.
Will called him “a good friend; loyal and trustworthy,” and if things are rough, he knows that after a chat, “you’re not having a bad day anymore.”
Papa Salm, meanwhile, recalled a freshman with few words, and when Will did talk he would have his eyes pointed toward his shoes. Will was forgetful when given tasks in that first season and needed frequent reminders. Today, he does his job confidently, he talks and will look a person in the eye while doing so.
“He’s come so far, and I’m so happy for him,” the elder Salm said. “It has to be tough, but he’s been able to overcome it and has done very, very well.”
Rob Salm said it’s been special to watch those interactions.
“I think my dad has grown, too, because of that relationship,” he said.
Will’s mom, Ann, made note of how her son has acclimated to his role. Big wins bring big celebrations, and still he’s focused on getting his job done rather than joining in on the cheers.
Teacher Jackie Nider said Will’s experience shows how acceptance can make a tremendous impact on those in the autism spectrum. He’s thrived in part because of the “boost to his self-esteem of being a member of something so important to the school,” she said.
Over the summer, Will worked at Fox Cities Stadium for the Wisconsin Timber Rattlers, and his parents say his experience with North football set the stage.
Will is just as focused as any player on Saturday’s playoff game, one more step toward a possible trip to state. He’d love the opportunity to compete for a state championship game and to put his feet on the turf at Madison’s Camp Randall Stadium. But he knows the end of the run is near.
“I’ll miss it when it’s all said and done,” Will said. “It’s been amazing, an amazing journey.”
There’s always a last game. This one, whenever it happens, will be particularly emotional for the Salms.
But Will is going to carry the lessons from his high school football experience into adulthood well after the last whistle has blown, Rob Salm said.
“I think he’s ready for that.”
Jim Collar: 920-993-1000, ext. 216, or email@example.com; on Twitter @JimCollar