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Youth Sports Heroes of the Month: Ethan McConnell and Davan Overton (Oregon); Jonathon Montanez and Mitchell Marcus (Texas)

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This month’s spotlight shines on a quartet of high school basketball players who, in two games more than 1,200 miles apart this season, figured in last-second shots that made no difference in the outcome of either game.  With the scores already lopsided, nothing suggested that the few hundred fans or anyone else would remember anything about the games for very long. After the buzzer, however, both shots quickly became YouTube sensations. 

Ethan and Davan

With only a few seconds remaining on November 28, the Mapleton High School Sailors were trouncing the Falls City Mountaineers, 64-42, in the teams’ opening game in Mapleton, Oregon. Then something extraordinary happened. “In a small gym in the middle of nowhere,” reported the Portland Oregonian, “two boys locked eyes . . . in the final seconds of a meaningless, one-sided high school basketball game.

One of the two boys was Falls City senior point guard Ethan McConnell, a four-year starter, one of the team’s best players, and the leading scorer in that game with 22 points. The other was Mapleton’s Davan Overton, who has Dandy-Walker variant, an extremely rare condition marked by a benign but inoperable cyst on his spine. The condition has slowed Davan’s brain development, created a speech impediment, and restricted his motor skills, so much so that even keeping his head straight requires special effort. Davan knows that the condition also limits his shooting ability on the court.

Since middle school, Davan has played basketball rather than football because a hit to the head might cause consequences much graver than a concussion that other players might suffer. The Oregonian reports that to avoid unnecessary contact, Mapleton’s supportive coach Adam Decker explains his player’s condition to the opposing coach before tipoff and usually puts him on the floor only when the score is one-sided late in the game. “The other coaches are usually so receptive that I don’t have to go any further than that,” says Decker.

Davan entered the Falls City game with two or three minutes left and Mapleton ahead by more than 20 points. He missed several shots and, with less than six seconds left, the game was about to end with Davan scoreless.Then Ethan gathered in a rebound near the Falls City basket, turned toward Davan, called his name, and passed him the ball. Davan’s three-pointer was all net as the buzzer sounded and the whole building celebrated together – Davan, Ethan and their teammates; the referees; and both teams’ fans. 

Jonathon and Mitchell

El Paso, Texas saw a similar last-second shot on February 12.  In the waning moments of the season’s final game, the Coronado High School T-Birds were about to defeat their crosstown rival, the Franklin Cougars, 53-40. Only 13 seconds separated Coronado from an undefeated season and the district championship.

Rather than run out the clock beneath Franklin’s basket, Franklin’s Jonathon Montanez inbounded the ball to Coronado senior Mitchell Marcus, who was making his only appearance in his first and only varsity game.  Mitchell, a special-needs student with a developmental disability, had served as Coronado’s team manager ever since his freshman year. He supported his teammates, filled the water bottles, gathered sweat suits, and spent hours outside the limelight performing countless other daily chores that help make teams click.  Coronado coach Peter Morales and his players agreed that in the season finale, Mitchell should pursue his dream of seeing action in one game, and perhaps even of hitting a basket.

“Shoot it,” said Jonathon as he inbounded the ball to the surprised Mitchell. “It’s your time.”

It took a few tries, but Jonathan and his Cougars teammates watched as Mitchell scored with only one second remaining and left the court on the shoulders of his teammates to the resounding cheers of both teams’ fans. The El Paso Times calls Montanez’s intentional turnover “one of the classiest gestures in El Paso high school basketball history.

Opening the Doors to Participation

On January 25, the U.S. Department of Education instructed the nation’s public school districts that federal disability law requires them to “provide students with disabilities an equal opportunity to participate alongside their peers in after-school athletics.” Davan Overton and Mitchell Marcus are valued team members supported by their coaches, teammates and classmates, but perhaps some school districts need the Department’s reminder.  In 2010, the U.S. Government Accountability Office found that students with disabilities participate in elementary and secondary school sports “at consistently lower rates than students without disabilities.” 

Depending on the circumstances of the student with disabilities, participation may take various forms, beginning with full participation that does not change the essential character of the game or confer special advantage. In last month’s “Youth Sports Heroes of the Month” blog, I wrote about the successes achieved in high school competition by a baseball star whose right arm ends near the elbow, a bowler with small arms that cannot extend, and a wrestler who is totally blind.  Add Davan Overton to the list.

Students whose disabilities leave them unable to participate on the field may assume auxiliary team roles, as Mitchell Marcus did as team manager throughout his high school career. Worthwhile programs, such as Little League’s Challenger Division, serve students whose conditions make other forms of participation inadvisable or impossible.

Davan Overton, Mitchell Marcus and countless other young athletes with disabilities are heroes because they set an example with their participation. In youth leagues and high school competition alike, all team members put themselves on public display because someone is always watching from the stands or in town. When you are the only person with a noticeable disability, it may seem easier not to step forward in the first place. Like the trio of young athletes I wrote about last month, Davan and Mitchell understand their conditions but do not allow the conditions to sideline them from athletics. 

Together with the parents and coaches who taught them values, Ethan McConnell and Jonathon Montanez are heroes because they remind us that sports often means more than just what appears on the scoreboard at the end of a game. On the spur of the moment, Ethan and Jonathon ignored an athlete’s first instincts, which are to win, to score points for the team, and not to give away points to opponents. Neither player knew the coach’s likely reaction to his spontaneous decision, and neither knew that anyone in the stands held a video camera to capture the moment for the world to see on YouTube.

Conclusion

Disabilities pave a two-way street in youth sports.Participation on the team teaches valuable lessons to the player with a disability, but the player also teaches teammates valuable lessons about resilience, perseverance, dedication and similar virtues. Perhaps this reciprocity helps explain why the basketball stories from Mapleton and El Paso captivated viewers worldwide.

This month’s quartet all learned their lessons well. “[My teammates] are like family to me,” says Mitchell Marcus. “Don’t judge me on my speech impediment, don’t judge me on my deficiency of motor skills,” Davan Overton asks, “Just judge me as I am.”

At the very end of the game,” Ethan McConnell told the Oregonian, “I couldn’t think of anything else but to get Davan that shot. . . . I really wanted him to know what it’s like for his team to be . . . super happy with him.” Jonathon Montanez told ESPN that “I was . . . raised . . . to treat others as you want to be treated, to give that other person a chance . . . that he deserves.” 


Sources: Anna Griffin, Two Oregon Teenagers, a Basketball and the Moment the Game Became Secondary, Portland Oregonian, Feb. 9, 2013; Cameron Smith, "A Single Oregon Prep Hoops Basket That Represents Everything That’s Right in Sports"; http://sports.yahoo.com/blogs/highschool-prep-rally/single-oregon-prep-h...)(Feb. 11, 2013); Aaron Bracamontes, "Coronado, Franklin Set Aside Rivalry, Mitchell Marcus Gets Shot at Glory." El Paso Times, Feb. 14, 2013; U.S. Dep’t of Education, Arne Duncan, "We Must Provide Equal Opportunity in Sports to Students with Disabilities" (Jan. 25, 2013); U.S. Gov’t Accountability Office, Students with Disabilities: More Information and Guidance Could Improve Opportunities in Physical Education and Athletics, p. 1 (June 2010)