Malik Knighten was playing his last high school football game for Charles City against bitter conference rival Waverly-Shell Rock. He was pumped up to try to upset a team headed for the playoffs on Friday.
But his team was down 49-7 in the fourth quarter. It looked like a sad moment to end on.
Then the defensive back looked to the opponent’s sideline and saw a boy he had known about who was on Waverly teams from youth football through high school. Aaron Dunn rarely got to play. The junior had only been in for 15 downs all season. He has autism.
“It just came to me. I wonder if he has ever had a chance to score? I know how it feels to score, I can’t imagine how he would feel,” said Knighten, 17.
So he told a Waverly player to ask his coach: Put Dunn in the game; they would let the lineman run for a touchdown. When he saw his willing messenger talking to the obviously confused Waverly coach on the sideline, he ran over to ask him in person.
“No coach, I’m serious,” Waverly-Shell Rock coach Mark Hubbard remembers Knighten telling him. “Put your guy in.”
In trotted No. 78, Aaron Dunn, whose father Joe Dunn said is high-functioning on the autism spectrum but developmentally has challenges.
He was given the ball and he ran. And ran. Forty-three yards, virtually untouched, escorting to the end zone by his teammates — and cheered on by a Charles City team losing by several touchdowns.
“It was just incredibly emotional,” Hubbard said. “There wasn’t a dry eye in the house.”
As Dunn was mobbed by teammates, members of the Charles City team came to the goal line to slap his hand in congratulations. It was the first touchdown of his life.
Knighten said a Waverly player stopped him after the game with tears in his eyes and told him, “You don’t know how much this means to us.”
The video of his touchdown inspired viewers online. It reminded some that amid an emphasis on winning and losing, there is still a beating heart of good will on an Iowa football field on a Friday night.
“Our game is still a platform for life lessons,” Hubbard said.
Knighten’s last football game became unforgettable.
“Both teams were all cheering him,” he said. “It felt like we both won.”