Atwater High School football team scores a very special touchdown

sjansen@mercedsunstar.comNovember 12, 2013 

— The play is called yellow jet right.

The Atwater High junior varsity football team has run the play dozens of times this season, but never as perfectly as on Friday night against Buhach Colony.

Sophomore Alex Zapien went in motion before the snap and took the handoff from quarterback Frankie Cocio. Zapien followed fullback Michael Vargas and a shell of blockers on a sweep around the right side as he scored on a 50-yard touchdown to delight of the 3,500 fans standing at newly named Dave Honey Stadium.

Why was the moment so special?

Zapien, 15, scored the touchdown while in his wheelchair.

“We thought it would be good to get Alex involved; he’s our teammate,” said 15-year old sophomore Cameron Pacheco, who came up with the idea to set up a play for his friend. “We feel like if Alex was capable of playing, he would be out there playing with us. It’s not his fault that he can’t play.”

Zapien has cerebral palsy and his been in a wheelchair since he was 3 years old. In his two years at Atwater High, his fellow classmates have found ways to help him be part of of the football team. Last year they made him an honorary captain for a game. He led the team out of an inflatable tunnel and took part in the coin toss.

This year they wanted to do something bigger.

“Cameron and a couple of teammates came to me during a pregame meal on Halloween night,” said Atwater junior varsity coach Nathan Ramirez. “Right away, I was like, ‘Yep, we’ll make it happen.’ I contacted the Buhach coaches and they said, ‘Win or lose, let’s do it.’ ”

“I’m happy the kids came together from both schools to allow something like this to happen for Alex. It’s a memory he will never forget,” Ramirez said.

The Falcons practiced the play once the night before the game.

After the junior varisty game was over – with Atwater winning 21-18 – 1 second was put back on the clock. Despite an emotional loss to their crosstown rival, Buhach Colony players lined up on defense for one final play at the 50-yard line.

“We were excited to help,” Buhach Colony junior varsity coach Jack Campbell said. “It’s a big rivalry, but we thought this was a good way to bring the community together. We were able to put football to the side for a minute.”

What Campbell didn’t expect was for his team to get so into the play. Players were allowing themselves to be blocked and falling to the ground as Zapien made his way down field.

“They did that on their own,” Campbell said. “They were out there making defensive calls. I didn’t plan that. When we mentioned doing this to the kids, they were excited for the opportunity. Some of the kids know Alex or are aware of him.”

Atwater High posted a video of the play on Facebook over the weekend and quickly received over 750 likes and the post was shared 153 times.

“I thought it was pretty thoughtful of them,” Zapien said. “I appreciate it a lot.”

Could Zapien hear the crowd going crazy?

“No, I was focused on what I was doing,” he said.

“Alex Strong” has been a theme for the Falcons this season. It was something they came up with after “Boston Strong” theme surfaced following the Boston Marathon bombings. Zapien has been an inspiration to his teammates because he’s kept a positive outlook despite his disability.

“We’ve talked about our team being a family,” Ramirez said. “When they brought it upon themselves to set up a play for him to score, I’m thinking they finally got it. You could see some of their players and our players hugging when Alex went into the end zone.”

Zapien’s stat line: one carry, 50 yards, touchdown.

“We knew Buhach Colony would be the perfect game to do it,” Pacheco said. “They showed good sportsmanship to let us do it — especially after a loss. It was the perfect way to end our season with Alex scoring a touchdown.”

Click here to see a video of the touchdown on YouTube.

Sun-Star staff writer Shawn Jansen can be reached at (209) 385-2462 or sjansen@mercedsunstar.com.

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