ST. PETERSBURG — The St. Petersburg High football team has no bigger fan than Cody Judson. He never misses a home game, has faith the Green Devils will surprise some folks and make a deep run in the Class 5A playoffs, and has been known to offer a play or two to the coaches.
Judson, 19, was born to be part of the game, and only his cerebral palsy keeps him from suiting up and getting out on the field.
He may never be part of huddle, but he definitely knows what it’s like to be part of the team, thanks to the Green Devils naming him an honorary assistant football coach.
“(The team) feels just like family,” said Judson, a special needs student at Nina Harris ESE Center in Pinellas Park. “I’m living the dream.”
That dream started when Nina Harris social worker Rick Lehner coached Judson during the 2008 Summer Special Olympics. Judson asked if he could be part of a football team, but the school doesn’t offer the sport.
Lehner mentioned Judson during a casual conversation with a friend who works at St. Petersburg High, who relayed the situation to football coach Joe Fabrizio.
“We think it’s important for the kids to be a part of something and we talked to the seniors and we thought it’d be a great idea for them to meet Cody,” said Fabrizio, who also teaches special education. “So we took some of the seniors over (to Nina Harris) and introduced themselves to Cody and he fit right in with them.”
Fabrizio had a message, though, for Judson.
“Joe told him he had to keep his grades up and he’s got to be in school all the time and the teachers have to sign progress notes just like they do for the players,” Lehner said.
With Lehner’s assistance, Judson attends every home game. Lee Bryant, the PA for the Green Devils, introduces Judson before every game to a loud ovation.
“They just love me,” he said, alluding to the crowd. “And I love them.”
Judson comes out with the team and even produces his own halftime speeches. Sue Porter, Judson’s teacher at Nina Harris, says since he has become involved with the team, he functions at a higher level than a lot of the other students.
And Judson is undeniably involved.
“He constantly tells me what I should call,” Fabrizio said.
Lehner recalled such a scenario with assistant coach Mike Rosendale.
“(During a game), Mike came over and he asks, ‘Cody, what do you think we should do next?’ and Cody says, ‘Go up the middle and we need a touchdown right here.’ ”
If the play’s a success, well, Judson’s taking credit.
“We love having him on the sidelines,” senior offensive lineman Tyler Sweetland said. “He actually knows a lot about football. He says he can call the plays for us. Well, he calls the ones that go for touchdowns.”
And it’s not just Judson who is benefiting from his time spent with the team.
“I think it’s real important for my players to see the other side of the coin,” Fabrizio said. “All of our kids are so lucky to do what they want to do athletically. To see a kid who’s in a wheelchair who likes to cheer and loves the game is a good thing for them.”
Judson is excited about St. Petersburg’s home playoff game Friday night against Venice, and he has a somewhat bold prediction for the rest of the season.
“We’re going all the way this year and that’s all I’ve got to say about that,” he said.
Photo courtesy of Tom Skukalek