Leavenworth senior night goes beyond the lines of football field

A single hand reaches out. It's pale-skinned, uncovered and shakes slightly due to a mixture of excitement and nerves.
The crisp, chill air of the October evening cuts the naked skin faintly, though unnoticeable to its owner, especially at a moment like this.
All around choreographed chaos has broken out. Gladiators dressed in blue and white have thrown themselves into a frenzy. Behind them a crowd is roaring, and behind them music is blaring. The stadium's pitch has hit a crescendo. It's Friday night in mid-America — it's time for high school football.
Yet before that passion can be fed, a meeting must be held and that is why Stephen Bartko is standing at the 50-yard line along Leavenworth's sideline. While the world around him has entered a crazed ritual, the 20-year-old is parked in front of the Pioneer football team. He is waiting, hand extended.
A half second goes by before an entirely different palm reaches out from the masses. This one is massive, wrapped in white tape and swollen — a Goliath for his David. Yet with care, the football player locks hand-in-hand with the honorary senior captain. The two turn to face midfield and the night's adversary.
Then they walk forward, together, as one.

* * * * *

Bartko, along with Billy Graham, Calum Munro and Trina Grace Waugh, make up Leavenworth football's First Downs for Down Syndrome program.
F.D.F.D.S., which is sponsored by the Kansas City Chiefs, is a joint fundraising effort between the club and area high school football teams. The endeavor is designed to create awareness, raise money and provide additional resources to benefit individuals with Down syndrome.
Through local businesses and individual donations, Leavenworth's F.D.F.D.S. raised $2,524 last year for the Down Syndrome Guild of Greater Kansas City and Leavenworth High.
All of this started at LHS four years ago, when Trina's mother Liisa Waugh began the organization with the help of former Pioneer football coach Chad Speer.
"We found out about F.D.F.D.S. through the Down Syndrome Guild of Greater Kansas City," Waugh said. "We thought it was a perfect way for us to give back to the guild and community for the help it gave us. But perhaps the biggest reason was that we thought Leavenworth got a bad rap."
"We knew that the kids here were pretty great towards kids with learning disabilities and we wanted to highlight them and show what good citizens they are."
A year later, a coaching change led to Kevin Kopecky taking over the football program. With any change comes uncertainty, and the future of Leavenworth's F.D.F.D.S. was no different. However, there never was a need to worry.
"We had the program when I was at St. Thomas Aquinas," Kopecky said, "and I was glad when I got here that Liisa already had the program running. I think we've upped it a little bit more here and have been able to increase the money raised."
Besides awareness and fundraising, F.D.F.D.S. also offers its members a unique experience. At every home game, Bartko, Graham and Munro serve as honorary captains. After the football team takes the field, the trio joins the senior captains for the traditional coin toss at midfield.
It's a simple gesture that has made a giant impact.
"The program gave us a reason to go to the game, got Stephen really interested in football and now he lives and breathes anything Pioneer football," Bartko's mother Cindy said. "If we go by the high school, he sits up and points over to the field. Whether it's a parent teacher conference or whatever, we will drive past the field just so he can see it.
"He has First Downs for Down Syndrome posters all over one of his bedroom walls. He has a real jersey that he has been allowed to keep and he would sleep in that thing if he could."
The program has grown so much that it extends far beyond the painted lines of a football field.
"Our school is really involved with it so from day one you are around kids with learning disabilities," said Jesse Colver, a defensive lineman for the Pioneers as well as a senior captain. "You show the same respect to them like you would anyone else. Regardless of what their impairment may be, they still come to school like every one else. I see Calum almost every day and he just lights up."
"The other day Billy was about to go on the elevator," said Josh Ammel, Pioneer senior linebacker and captain, "and he saw me. So we stopped and went down to give him a high five and just say hi."
And that camaraderie is the real heart of this program.
"A lot of times, people who don't understand differences can unknowingly do hurtful or say unkind things. Not because they mean to, just because they don't know," Waugh said. "But by allowing kids and adults to see that kids with challenges are like the kids without them, it's a win-win for everybody. These boys might not realize it now, but this has affected them.
"It's allowed the kids with Down syndrome to have a more expansive high school experience and it's allowed the kids in the high school to get to know these kids on a different level."
A level that will reach new heights this evening — senior night.

* * * * *

"Why wouldn't we?"
The answer was plain yet unknowingly profound. In preparing for tonight's celebration to honor the team's seniors, booster club president Sherrie Hodges was given a request by the upperclassmen.
"She told me that the seniors wanted to included Stephen and Billy," Waugh said. "I was totally moved by this. I said we should run it by coach because it's the boys' night and I didn't want to take away from that. His response… Why, wouldn't we?"
"It made me cry and I couldn't stop," Cindy Bartko said.
Seniors Stephen and Billy will be joining the other 15 Pioneer upperclassmen as they are recognized tonight in the final home game of their high school careers.
Four years have gone by and during that time this group has raised Leavenworth football up from the ashes. From compiling the school's best start in decades to earning a playoff birth for the first time since 1980, the seniors of 2012 have resurrected Pioneer football.
At the same time, the group's biggest accomplishment has been the men they've become. Look no further for an example of that than the bonds developed with Stephen and Billy.
"That's what it's all about," Waugh said. "Not building just good athletes, but good men."
"The reason you get into this business is to help young people," Kopecky said. "No matter who it is or what problems they have. No matter if it was a tough loss or a big win. You have to remember why you got into this, for the kids."
A little past 6:30 this evening, the football program will say good-bye to 17 remarkable seniors. Through the weathered-stained cement doors, the group will stroll out from its locker room to the bright lights of Pioneer Stadium.
It will be rainy and cold, fans buried deep inside their layers of coats, but that won't matter. Beneath the boom of cheers and music, these football players will take the field like kings of old returning to their courts.
And then, for one last time, Stephen and Billy will head to the front of the crowd. After spotting their fellow seniors, they will lock hands and walk forward into the night's unknown, together, as one.
"When they go out there with us, they are just like us," Ammel said. "It's like they are another player, a part of this team. They are a part of this family."

Fast facts: First Downs For Down Syndrome

F.D.F.D.S was created by Gene Stallings, a longtime NFL football coach who had a son born with Down syndrome.

In the 90's, the Kansas City Chiefs partnered with the program to take the effort citywide.

Presently, the funds raised by the non-profit organization are used to support two local entities: the Down Syndrome Clinic at Children's Mercy Hospital and the Down Syndrome Guild of Greater Kansas City.

Individuals or businesses can donate by sponsoring the team or with a flat donation.

A sponsor sees its donation multiplied by the number of Pioneer first downs made during the year.

In 2011, the team raised $2,524. For more information on how to donate or help, contact Bill and Liisa Waugh at 682-2608 or Seven4Christ@aol.com.