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Muskegon County mom says youth football has helped her son with autism

Ben Hayes has found a family on the field.

MONTAGUE, Mich. — It hasn't always been the easiest life for 11-year-old Ben Hayes. Ben has autism.

"He didn't start talking 'til he was 8. He got bullied a lot....there was an incident last year where he was bullied so much that he got his head pushed through a window," said Ben's mother Rebecca Shannon.

But the 6th grader always found an escape in sports, and despite never playing football, Ben attended the Detroit Lions youth camp.

"The football camp this year. They encouraged me to play football," said Ben. 

That encouragement to play for Montague Youth also came from his friend Mason Darke.

"[Ben] got bullied for a little bit and I wanted to help get him out. So if he is hurt, he can come here and have fun with the whole team," said Mason. 

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"I was petrified because being bullied, and then put on a football team is like a target on your back," said Shannon.

That's when she had a talk with Coach Stephen Darke.

"Originally his Mom had called and asked if we would be able to accommodate Ben with autism, and we said absolutely. We'd designate a coach and player," said Darke.

Ben became the long snapper—a position he could be protected in. But it wasn't until the first game when his mother Rebecca started to believe things would be okay.

"He had that first game, and he had that first snap. He came off the field and he went like this. That was the moment: his face was like, you could see it through the helmet and I knew he enjoyed it," said Shannon.

The change in Ben's behavior has been dramatic.

"We don't see meltdowns. We see him coming home, doing homework, so he can get to practice," said Shannon.

And the bond with teammates is even stronger.

"We've got a family. These guys are not trying to impress each other; they're here to play football and take care of their family members. Ben's a family member," said Darke.

A family that accepts each other's differences.

"Everyone's different in some kind of way. You just got to treat them nice and welcome them, and I think everything will turn out fine," said Darke.


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