Small gesture helps troubled youth program

GRANITE FALLS — The season has been rough on many levels.

On the field, two of the three Granite Falls youth football teams have gone winless in their age divisions. The remaining team has a win, but is at the bottom of the standings.

Off the field, allegations that a coach misused nearly $10,000 of the association’s money has led to a police investigation.

When a former parent volunteer was asked to look into the association’s finances, he discovered unpaid bills, lapsed insurance coverage and paperwork for nonprofit status had not been filed. For a time, it appeared games would have to be forfeited before volunteers scrambled to clean up the mess.

There was mistrust. Parents bickered. Coaches winced. Youngsters wondered what was wrong.

“It was almost like dominoes,” said Stacey McBride, who had two boys playing in the league. “Every day, it seemed like, ‘Uh, oh. Uh, oh. Uh, oh.’”

A small town can feel like an extended family — sometimes dysfunctional, but often resilient.

A gesture Saturday involving a 10-year-old boy with autism helped heal a season of discontent. So, too, did a spaghetti feed fundraiser the following night.

The game was nearly over Saturday when Coach Carl Cary called Nathan Wolanek to his side.

Nathan has a high-functioning form of autism. It often takes him longer than his peers to process information, such as finding his place on the field or getting into the right stance. He’s usually the last player to get into the game, typically for a few snaps on the defensive line.

Nathan’s mom, April Wolanek, watched from afar as Nathan started jumping up and down and hugging his coach on the sunny afternoon.

Her husband, Mike, was closer to the action. He called her on his cellphone.

Nathan was going to get to go in on offense, he explained.

“He’s going to be carrying the ball,” he said.

“My first thought was, ‘What are they thinking?’” April said

The Marysville team had a stout defense. She couldn’t help thinking that the Granite Falls starting running back seemed to be taking a beating.

She watched as the coach and another player on the sidelines worked with Nathan on taking a handoff, tucking the ball securely into his arms and running.

Nathan — an orange No. 74 on the back of his black jersey — jogged onto the field. He scanned the sidelines until he locked eyes with his mother and waved his arm above his head.

When Nathan’s play was called in the game’s waning moments, it was as though the Red Sea parted. He was not touched on his journey to the end zone. He was overjoyed then and well into the night, still awake and reliving the moment well past his bedtime.

“I found my block and I ran 50 yards,” Nathan said afterward. “All my team was excited.”

April Wolanek and others around her couldn’t hold back their tears.

“Coaches and parents alike had to take a few minutes to gather themselves because what they observed was pure unadulterated joy,” she said.

They weren’t the only ones.

Across the field, Tiffany Hackworth was taking photos for the Marysville team. Her husband was helping to coach. Their son, Joseph, was on the Marysville team. Another son, Kenny, 14, also was at the game.

When Nathan made his run, Tiffany couldn’t help but think of Kenny, whose autism is so profound that playing football, like so many other activities most people take for granted, is not an option. The compassion behind Nathan’s run hit close to home.

“It was extremely emotional to watch,” Tiffany Hackworth said. “I can’t imagine the joy and excitement that not only Nathan must have felt but also his parents.”

As April Wolanek understands it, the play was the idea of one of the referees who was intrigued by Nathan. The boy was chosen as one of four team captains that day. He met with the ref before the game.

Wolanek’s explanation of the chain of events went something like this: “A referee spoke to a coach, a coach spoke to a parent, a coach spoke to another coach and (asked him to) go and talk with coaches on the other team, and a plan was set in motion to bless a child. No one on that field could have been aware of the impact of what was transpiring on the field.”

Going into the game, the association’s off-the-field troubles weighed heavily on Coach Cary.

On Saturday, Nathan — who Cary described as “just one of those kids who is happy to be there” — reminded his coach that the joy of a game can take many forms.

“It was exactly what my heart needed at exactly the right time,” he said. “It was the highlight of my career, both playing and coaching.”

Nathan’s run didn’t mend everything. The Granite Falls Police Department has received a complaint about the missing money and is investigating, acting Police Chief Don Lauer said Tuesday.

There also are bills to pay and paperwork to complete.

Andy Johnson, a volunteer, has seen people stepping forward to help.

“The reason we are all doing this is we care about kids having something to do,” Johnson said. “We all care about the program.”

A spaghetti feed fundraiser at the Granite Falls Eagles Club on Sunday raised more than $3,700. That equates to more than $1 a head for every man, woman and child living within Granite Falls city limits.

The initial goal is to raise $10,000, but more will be needed to get the youth football association back on solid financial ground.

There also is an online fundraiser underway at https://99pledges.com/fund/granitefalls. Volunteers got more good news when ShareVision LASIK and Eyecare agreed to provide matching money.

Along the way, hope has been salvaged.

“Some may say that this has been the worst season on record for Granite Falls youth football,” April Wolanek said. “I challenge that belief. This may have been one of the most-losing seasons when it comes to ball games, but when viewed through life skills and caring for others, what I observed and experienced on Saturday was one of the most beautiful experiences of my life.”

Eric Stevick: 425-339-3446, stevick@heraldnet.com.

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