Commentary

Athens High rallies around teammate

Updated: October 31, 2008, 8:46 AM ET
By Wayne Drehs | ESPN.com

When the idea first came about, Jim Dobbs, the boy's football coach, smiled. Julie Weiks, the boy's mother, cried. Darin Weiks, the boy's father, felt his heart skip a beat. And Darin Jr., the boy they call "Doogie," the high school senior with the rare liver disease that prevents him from playing contact sports, refused to believe his dream would ever come true.

But Brendan Dobbs and the rest of the seniors on the Athens (Wis.) High School football team refused to accept no for an answer. Every fall for the past four years, they had stepped onto the football field, looked into the eyes of their student manager and seen the pain, felt the heartache.

They wanted him to feel it. They wanted Doogie to stand in the locker room, put on that bright blue helmet and dark blue jersey, and run out onto that field. They wanted him to hear the roar of the crowd and listen to his dad, the team's P.A. announcer, introduce his son as an Athens High School football player.

So one night at dinner a few weeks back, Brendan asked his dad, the head coach at Athens, if there was some way, any way, they could get Doogie on the field for the last game of the season. Dad thought about it, smiled and agreed. It was a great idea.

"He would have given anything to be out there with us for every game," Brendan said. "We all knew that; Dad understood that. This was our way of recognizing that. It was just the way it was meant to be."

[+] EnlargeDarin Weiks
Rob Orcutt/Wausau Daily HeraldDarin Weiks got to suit up for the final game in his senior season.

Brendan, who lives three doors down from Weiks, was all too familiar with Doogie's story. He knew about the feeding tube in Weiks' stomach, the way he plugged himself into a machine each night before bed and the endless corn starch- and sugar-free Kool-Aid drinks he chugs throughout the day.

He knew Weiks had spent his entire life as "that kid," the one with the glycogen storage disease that not only kept his liver from properly processing sugar but also kept him from growing at a pace similar to his peers. Even now, after three years on human growth hormone, the 17-year-old was barely 5-foot-4 and 135 pounds. Dobbs knew that his friend's liver had become enlarged and had spots on it, and that he had just made the decision to go on the waiting list for a liver transplant.

He knew that doctors had told Doogie to avoid contact sports because a blow to the liver could kill him. But he also knew how much his friend loved football, how much he loved to compete and how much it ate at him to have to stand on the sideline and watch every day for four years. Doogie told him as much.

"It sucked, actually. That's the best way to put it," Doogie said. "It sucked to sit there and watch. I'd see guys screwing around in practice, and I want to grab them and yell, 'Hey, don't you know how good you have it?'

"But I just love football so much, I couldn't give it up. I had to be around it some way, somehow. So every day I went out there and tried to help my friends as their manager."

MAKING A PLAN
After Brendan suggested to his dad that they get Doogie on the field, Jim Dobbs took the idea and ran with it. He first called Doogie's parents to get an idea how they felt about it. Julie Weiks was floored by the selfless act a group of teenage boys had come up with on their own. Darin Sr. was equally moved, but at the same time scared about what might happen if Doogie got hit.

[+] EnlargeDarin Weiks
Rob Orcutt/Wausau Daily HeraldWeiks had just two days to practice, but nailed his kicks during the game.

"We gave it some thought about not letting him do it," he said. "But it wasn't a long conversation. Doogie's spent his entire life being told, 'You can't do this, you can't do that.' And you know what? He's a kid. I can't keep him in a bubble. He isn't made of glass. He just has to be careful. So we agreed that he could play, under a few limitations."

Weiks' doctors agreed to let the boy play, but asked that he wear a flak jacket beneath his uniform. And under no circumstance could he be put into a situation where the other team could hit him. Dobbs agreed, understood and then sought permission from the athletics director, school principal and district superintendent. He also spoke with Abbotsford coach Eric Elmhorst to make sure the opposing coach would agree that his players would not hit Doogie. Waivers were written up and signed by all parties involved releasing Athens High from any liability.

Then Dobbs started trying to figure out how to get Weiks on the field. He originally planned on handing the ball off to him and instructing the boy to run out of bounds, but decided against it.

"We would have forfeited the game if that's what it would have taken," Coach Dobbs said. "That's how much it meant to our guys. And we could have dummied it down and let him take a snap, but that's not what this was about. It's not a charity. It's not a pity game for Doogie. It's an opportunity that he has worked his tail off for and deserves. I wanted him to be an active participant in the game."

So Dobbs made him the kicker. The boy who had never kicked a football in his life would be asked to handle kickoffs and extra points for the game. Dobbs would assign a bodyguard to stand next to Weiks on the field and if anybody got too close to him, well, he would quickly and forcefully be reminded of the pregame agreement between the two teams not to lay a hand on Athens No. 5.

Doogie would have two days of practice to prepare.

"I never thought this would happen," he said. "They wouldn't let me play for all these years, why now? Because it's Senior Night? I didn't think so. But that first day I put pads on, that's when it hit me. That's when it became a reality. We were stretching and warming up and I just stood out there and tried to soak it all in.

"I wanted that moment to last forever."

THE KICK IS UP …
And so, Thursday night, minutes before a seemingly meaningless Division 7 Wisconsin high school football game between a pair of 2-6 teams, Darin "Doogie" Weiks stood in the stadium tunnel -- dressed in his helmet, pads and full uniform -- and waited to hear his name. His father would introduce him last.

Brendan Dobbs and the rest of the Blue Jays football team eagerly awaited his arrival on the field. Mom sat in the bleachers, trying to control her emotions so she could balance the family camcorder. And Dad sat in the press box, goosebumps shooting across his arms as he prepared to announce his son's name at an Athens football game for the first time.

It was easily the most emotional, inspirational game I've ever been a part of. You could just feel the way these kids wanted to get out there and play for Doogie. It was an amazing, special night.

--Athens coach Jim Dobbs

Darin Weiks knew his son's name would be last, and he knew the name he had to pronounce before it: No. 73, offensive lineman, Brian Dlugopolski.

"I knew as I went down the list that I was getting closer and closer," Darin said. "Once I got to Brian's name, I knew Doogie was next. And that's when the emotions got to me. I couldn't stop thinking about how much this kid deserved this."

And now, No. 5, Darin "Doooooooogie" Weiks. Four … year … player.

Athens received the game's opening kick, allowing Doogie ample time to soak up the atmosphere before he would be needed on the field. That was the plan, at least, until the Blue Jays returned the kickoff for a touchdown. Nine seconds into the game, Doogie stood under the bright stadium lights, with 21 other kids and a goalpost in front of him, preparing for the first extra-point attempt of his life.

"I was stunned," Julie Weiks said. "I kept telling my friend, 'I'm not ready. I'm not ready.'"

"I wasn't ready, either," Doogie said. "All of the sudden I was on the field. There wasn't even enough time to be nervous. I just kept telling myself, 'Don't miss it. Don't miss it.'"

He didn't. The kick split the uprights. And the stadium erupted.

"I was so incredibly proud [of him]," Brendan said, "to not only be able to go out there, but then kick it right down the middle? That kid is something else."

"It was easily the most emotional, inspirational game I've ever been a part of," coach Dobbs added. "You could just feel the way these kids wanted to get out there and play for Doogie. It was an amazing, special night."

Athens won 33-19 that night, with Weiks making three of his five extra-point attempts and kicking off six times. They are the 11 plays he will never forget, the 11 plays that still race through his mind today.

"It was the single greatest day of my life," he said. "The pieces couldn't have come together any better. Really, I didn't do anything. It was all coach Dobbs, Brendan and the rest of the guys. I don't know how I'll ever be able to thank them."

In the coming months, Doogie and his family will wear pagers that will vibrate the instant a new liver is located for him. At that point, they will have five hours to get to Milwaukee and prepare for transplant surgery. The surgery is risky, but if the transplant is successful, the disease that the boy was born with will be gone and he'll be able to live the rest of his life just like he did that night on the Athens High School football field.

As just one of the guys.

Wayne Drehs is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at wayne.drehs@espn3.com.