5-year-old with Down syndrome scores a touchdown in flag football league playoffs
The Storks may have lost the playoffs, but they won something more important: a moment they’ll never forget.
With one second of game play left during the game on Nov. 8, the opposing team had handed off the football to Storks running back 5-year-old Brayden Gero.
At any other youth football playoff, the play would spark confusion. But all the players on the field that day rallied around No. 80.
Brayden, who was born with Down syndrome, scored a touchdown that both teams could celebrate.
“The other kids were happier about Brayden scoring a touchdown than their own accomplishments,” said Jarrod Gero, Brayden’s father.
Gero, a 36-year-old Boston Police officer, founded the coed Parkway Youth Flag Football League six years ago, starting with 200 children. The league has since grown to more than 700 players spread across 58 teams.
Those teams include coaches Joe Sullivan’s Storks and Mike O’Brien’s Storm.
The day of the playoffs, O’Brien and Sullivan had set up the play for Brayden to take the ball into the end zone, where a crowd of more than 100 people waited with applause and cheers.
“It was Brayden’s moment,” said O’Brien, 42. “I just called the play and told the players what to do.”
O’Brien said he was inspired as he stood on the sidelines looking on.
Brayden blazed down the field with the ball. When he started to slip out of bounds, players from his team and the opposing team rushed to help. He fell at the 5-yard line, but his coach helped him back to his feet.
Brayden smiled the whole time. And he wasn’t the only one.
“He has an infectious smile that affects everyone around him,” said Sullivan, who is in his second year of coaching.
After 15 years of experience coaching high school football teams, Sullivan said he wanted to get involved in his community. These two years coaching of Brayden have been especially meaningful, he said.
“It was an honor to coach Brayden, and I feel I’m a better person for it,” said the 12-year West Roxbury resident.
Brayden’s father said coaches like Sullivan and O’Brien epitomize the core values of the league — sportsmanship, competitiveness and fairness. They would have provided the opportunity for anybody, not just for Brayden, he said.
“They don’t want to win a game and sacrifice a kid’s feelings being hurt,” Gero said. “They try get every kid on the field at least one chance to run the football during the game.”
Gero was there to film his son’s emotional touchdown. The only heads-up he got was when Sullivan told him, “Jarrod, get your camera out.”
Gero said it meant a lot to him and his family, but most of all, to Brayden.
“He gets more enjoyment out of showing up to the games and sitting on the sidelines probably more than anything else that he does,” Gero said. “He can do everything that everyone can do, but it’s at a slower pace.”
He also said Brayden gets the “biggest kick in the world” out of hiking the football and practices by hiking everything he can in the house including diapers, juice boxes and the remote control.
“Brayden’s one of the happiest, most lovable kids you’ll ever meet,” Gero said.
Sullivan said Brayden is an inspiration for everyone and a symbol for the Storks. Besides being a coach and a police officer, Sullivan, 39, is also a father of three daughters. His daughter, Brielle, played alongside Brayden for the past two seasons.
“We’re not only the Storks as a team, I consider us a little family,” Sullivan said.
He said when he tucked his daughter in that night, she was crying. Brielle told him she was sad that she wasn’t going to be on Brayden’s team next year.
Brielle turned 7 after the season started, which means she’ll move from the Munchkin division, where ages 4-6 play, to the Mini Division, with ages 7-9. There is also a Junior Division for ages 10-12.
Sullivan told her maybe they could coach Brayden together.
“You’re putting your stamp on a child’s life,” Sullivan said. “I don’t think what they’re watching on TV and seeing in pro sports is what they should be emulating.”
O’Brien of the Storm agreed.
“We don’t teach them just to be good at sports — we try to teach them to be good sports,” he said.