TAMPA — A quarterback threw a short pass on the field at Plant High School. Greggory Chandler caught it and ran. No one tried to stop him.
"Don't outdo us," one of the players joked. At 5 feet 2 1/2 inches and 139 pounds, Greggory was the smallest of the two dozen boys on the practice field. They wore the Panthers practice uniform: gray shirts and black shorts. Greggory's gold-colored helmet was pristine — no scratches or paw print stickers for touchdowns.
Greggory's mother, Denise Chandler, and her longtime boyfriend, Glenn Ward, leaned on the fence just past the end zone. They have always told him he can do anything.
"Except football," said his mom. "He knows why."
"My heart," he said.
He has had 12 major surgeries, including two open-heart operations. The defects are related to his Down syndrome. His cardiologist says he shouldn't lift more than 15 pounds. Definitely no tackle football.
But Greggory sometimes plays with Ward, whom he calls Dad, and the kids in his neighborhood, half a mile north of Gandy Boulevard. He's as crazy for his school's powerhouse team as any other student.
For four years Greggory has pestered Coach Robert Weiner for a chance to try out. For four years, the coach has good-naturedly played along. But as the football season drew to a close in Greggory's last year, Ward sensed it might be time to make the impossible happen.
So he asked Chandler, who asked Greggory's teacher, who asked the coach, and the coach said yes. On the day before Plant's district championship game, Greggory suited up.
• • •
Greggory got the ball again. He ran 70 yards to score. Before he reached the end zone, the players started cheering. It was a nice reversal of roles; during the season Greggory was part of a group of students with special needs who rooted for the team alongside the school's cheer squad.
The air was cool but the sun was hot.
The coach gathered the team on the sideline.
Greggory gulped from a water spigot.
Three girls with cameras walked up. They heard Greggory would be practicing and wanted pictures for the yearbook. He smiled and posed. He pointed at the yearbook editor, Sydney Schiff.
"You're my girlfriend," he said. She smiled back at him.
Weiner stepped between the line of players to Greggory.
"Are you still celebrating your touchdown or signing autographs?" he asked.
His mom came up to the fence and he looked over.
"Mom, I'm not kickoff. Defense.
Mom, I need cleats.
Mom, did you see me?
Did Dad see me?"
• • •
The coach was still talking to the team when Greggory squatted like a frog behind a line of players and held his stomach. He stayed like this for minutes. A player leaned over him and said, "We need you for one more play."
Running back Wesley Bullock looked over and said: "I know that feeling. He's going to feel so much better after he hurls."
Wesley, a senior, knew from experience: too much water, too fast. Wesley met Greggory in weight lifting class. He sometimes rubs his knuckles playfully on Greggory's head. When he sees him at lunch, they fist-bump.
"They try to separate us like we're different," Wesley said. "But seeing someone with different abilities helps us see we're all the same."
An assistant coach noticed Greggory wasn't feeling well. He told him to stand up and stick out his stomach, advice he had likely given to other players before. It worked.
Greggory's mother aimed him toward a trash can. When he finished throwing up, she led him past the end zone to a water fountain and scooped water over his head. Rinse out your mouth, she told him.
"Mom," he said, exasperated, "I'm almost 20."
• • •
Greggory has plans for his life.
"I want to live (by) myself. My own apartment and money," he said. He wants a job as a football coach, or a wrestling coach. He wants to go to college at Florida State University. He wants to drive a limousine and have a girlfriend.
"I'm good at math," he said.
Greggory is part of the exceptional student program. He has made principal's honor roll for four years. For his electives, like weight lifting, he participates with the rest of the students, which is how he met Wesley.
School was harder before he came to Plant. Younger kids were mean and he was lumped with some who had behavioral issues. One time at Robinson High School, someone held him over the rail on the second-floor balcony.
"I hate the word retarded when it comes to my brother," said sister Chelsea, who is 18 months younger. "When it comes to Greggory, I don't understand why other people can't see him through my eyes."
When she fights occasionally with their mother, Greggory intervenes, putting his hands together like a wise old man. "Chelsea," he says. "Mom loves you. Stop."
Greggory has asked her why he was born handicapped. She repeats what she has heard her mother say. "That's how God wanted you to be. God wanted you to be special."
• • •
Greggory was feeling better. On the field, someone held the ball on the ground 10 yards from the goal posts. Greggory kicked. The ball bounced across the field.
He tried again. The ball sailed just over the crossbar.
The players converged on Greggory, swallowing him in. Someone picked him up and carried him piggyback down the field.
Chandler and Ward were speechless.
"Wow," Ward said — seven times.
When the fist bumps and the butt slaps and the high fives and the "good jobs" subsided, Weiner gathered the team in a circle. He handed out awards and three paw print stickers for Greggory's helmet.
Keep the helmet, the coach said. He invited Greggory to stand with the team at the game the following night.
He was part of the team.
After that Friday night game, which Plant won 51-20, Weiner, who had just recorded his 100th win, gave Greggory the game ball.
Greggory put it on his dresser next to the helmet.
Elisabeth Parker can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 226-3431.