Friday nights often set the scene for hundreds of students who pack the stadium and cheer for the Emmaus High School football team.
But on Sept. 6, the “hippie-out,” one excited fan did more than cheer — in fact, he was presented with a heartwarming greeting from the players themselves.
Ian Foerst, a freshman with Down syndrome, has become enthralled with the football team and often refers to the boys as “the football guys,” according to his mother, Megan Foerst. Social media provided a platform for Ian’s love for the team to draw attention from the players.
Junior wide receiver Jameel Sanders found out about Ian’s interest in the team and contacted the Foerst family through Facebook, which led him to arrange a meeting with several players before their departure to the Whitehall game. His mother expected Foerst to meet “one or two” players, but was then surprised by Sanders’ announcing “no player is to get on the bus without shaking Ian’s hand.”
UPDATE: Ian Foerst was welcomed to join the football team in running onto the field for their Sept. 13 game. He was also gifted pieces of Hornets merchandise, including a sign with signatures from the team that reads, “Proud supporter of the Emmaus Hornets,” and a “Mascot Crew” t-shirt with his name printed on the back.
Megan Foerst, an Emmaus alum, shared the moment on Facebook and received a deluge of praise and reactions from the football team and members of the Emmaus community.
“They lined up, lined up, and I’m just sitting there, I’m sitting there in awe,” Foerst said. “I took three quick pictures and then I just stood there. They all shook his hand, and then they were on the bus. For a parent in general, it’s amazing to see your child get that kind of positive attention. But for a parent of a child with a disability, there’s no words to describe it.”
The event was important to more than just the Foerst family; it instilled the team with a sense of purpose.
Junior middle linebacker Conner Carter left with an impression he carried with him through the game.
“It made me feel really empowered and made me realize how lucky we all are to be in our position,” Carter said. “It made me feel like we were all doing something good, and we’re not just like a high school football team. I realized everyone playing a lot better and more focused than they normally do.”
For Sanders, Foerst and his family struck more of a chord than for most.
“I hadn’t noticed him at games before but I’d like them to come to all of them,” Sanders said. “My uncle has a disability and I would love if he could make it to my games, like seeing him come to the games would make me happy.”
The Emmaus football team has been active in lending a helping hand to East Penn community members, especially when it comes to students with disabilities.
The program annually hosts a flag football clinic at EHS for kids with special needs, which starts up again Sept. 21. The program features warmups, drills, and ends with a flag football game, mirroring a football camp, but it is tailored to create a better fitting environment for children who otherwise may not have been able to get involved in athletics.
According to head football coach Harold Fairclough, each year the team hosts attendees from Lehigh and Carbon counties. The athletes also volunteer with Special Olympics.
When Fairclough started working and coaching for four years ago, he implemented a volunteer opportunity for football players called Lunch Buddies.
The program pairs football players with students in the special education program at lunch on Fridays, allowing a chance for both groups mingle, and to further the goal of making sure that Emmaus High School is an environment where no one feels alienated.
Fairclaugh believes the social image that football players have can be a powerful tool that can be used to make statements and set the right expectations in a school community.
“I always tell the kids, “if we have that platform, why don’t we do something positive with it?”” Fairclough said.
The team at Emmaus is known to have extra room in their hearts for reaching out to members within the community like they did with Ian. With programs like Lunch Buddies and the Special Olympics, community members like Megan Foerest notice how the players and the Athletic Department use their position to make others feel included and respected.
“I don’t think Jameel, and all the players, and the coaches, I don’t think they understand, that small gesture of a high five, what it did,” Foerst said. “Ian isn’t 100 percent verbal, but the smile on his face said it all.”