Nicky Rudy doesn’t want to be considered “special.”
He has an inviting personality and, naturally, with a last name like Rudy, he belongs on the football field.
And while there may not be any movies made or books written about Nicky Rudy, the story of how football has influenced his life is just as motivational as the Rudy of football lore.
To understand just how much football means to Rudy, a 15-year-old freshman at Central High School, you have to understand his life and the obstacles he has overcome and those he continues to face.
Rudy, as his teammates on the Red Raider football team appropriately call him, is a straight-A student and backup quarterback for the Red Raider freshman football team, which recently concluded its season. But Rudy has more than class and reading defenses to contend with. Rudy is autistic.
“He has a form of high-functioning autism,” explained Rudy’s grandmother, Brenda Pankey. “He understands when someone is [picking on him] and sometimes kids can be mean.”
Rudy lives with his grandmother after a massive heart attack claimed his mother’s life three years ago.
“[His mother’s death] affected him,” explained Brenda. “His mom was a huge Titans fan. He has said he wanted to play football because he wants to make his mom proud of him.”
Autism, as defined by autismspeaks.org, has varying degrees of severity. Autism can be associated with intellectual disabilities, difficulties in social interaction and trouble with communication, among other disabilities. Rudy is a straight-A student in the classroom. But it wasn’t until this year, and the opportunity to get involved with football, did Rudy begin to blossom socially.
“He used to really be into wrestling,” explained Brenda. “And I bought him a football game and he has been into that ever since.
“Coach [Lee] Davis and the [football] kids have really been good to him. Sometimes, when a kid has a disability, other kids don’t want to be around him. They can be mean to him. He wasn’t in Special Olympics this year because he told me, ‘I don’t want to be special anymore.'”
Those are more than just words for Rudy. He is determined. He just finished an entire football season worth of practices. And in the freshman season’s final game against Page on Oct. 24, his hard work and dedication to his newfound craft paid off on the field.
At the very end of the game Rudy entered at quarterback, took a snap, rolled left and rumbled 55 yards for his first ever touchdown. He scored with a handful of Page defenders giving chase.
“It was so awesome,” said Rudy, rocking back in his chair and soaking in the approval of the teammates surrounding him in the Red Raider film room. “First touchdown I ever scored.”
His grandmother said the pride she sensed from Rudy after he scored his first-ever touchdown was palpable.
“I couldn’t be happier for him,” she said. “I couldn’t go because the game was away, but he called and was so excited and I could hear everyone yelling in the background.”
Football has given Rudy plenty of physical and mental exercise. But perhaps, more importantly, it has helped him find a social platform.
“The kids see him now and high-five him and always talk to him,” explained Brenda. “It really makes him feel better. They are so good to him. He looks at them like his family. Football has really changed his life.”
Rudy’s teammates have been some of his biggest fans.
“It was awesome [to see him score],” said Silas Vaughn, who was on the field blocking for Rudy during his touchdown run. “It was one of the best parts of the season, really.”
Rudy ran in a two-point conversion after his touchdown for good measure, capping a memorable night and a memorable season.
Richard Crabtree, who coached the freshman Raiders, said Rudy is a motivator.
“Rudy is a good kid,” said Crabtree. “We love having him around. He is a motivational guy for the kids. He points things out, makes sure they have their reads. He pays attention and takes in a lot.
“He even leads us in prayer before and after games. He means a lot to the kids. He means a lot to us.”
Rudy has taken such a liking to football that he designs plays and turns them into the coaching staff.
“He understands the game, you can tell,” said Red Raider defensive coordinator Coy Sisk.
As for whether he plans to keep playing after this season, Rudy is adamant that he will be suiting up again next fall.
“I can’t wait to play again next year,” he said, wearing a smile. “I definitely want to play quarterback again.”
It can be hard to truly measure the impact that sports can have on children’s’ lives. But it’s impossible to deny that football has helped Nicky Rudy.
He isn’t special anymore. He is just one of the guys now.
Read more stories in this week’s (Nov. 13) print edition of the Manchester Times. Click here for a subscription to the print and/or online edition.