Off to the side of Newcastle High School's football field, managers Derek Lewis and Sharla Lax toss a football back and forth.
It’s a typical Tuesday for the Dogies. After breaking down film, the team runs through drills under the watchful eyes of Newcastle's coaching staff. Lewis and Lax commence their daily game of catch.
Lax, a petite blonde, throws and catches the ball effortlessly. But Lewis, wearing black football gloves and decked out in black shorts and an orange polo – Newcastle’s team colors – puts his full concentration into throwing a perfect spiral with every pass.
Minutes later, Newcastle head coach Matt Conzelman blows the whistle. Lewis and Lax end their back-and-forth passing and listen to instructions. While the Dogies’ reserves run plays against the first-team defense, Lewis places the ball in position for the drill's next snap.
It’s obvious Lewis would rather be playing than acting as a ball boy, but it’s doubtful that will ever happen.
Derek Lewis, the kid who throws a tight spiral and might have the prettiest 3-point shot in the school, was born with Down syndrome, a genetic trait that affects approximately one in every 700 children born in the United States, according to the National Down Syndrome Society.
Derek Lewis smiles. A lot. The braces he wears might cause some 18-year-olds to be self-conscious about their smile, but not Lewis.
His face lights up when he talks about basketball (his favorite sport), Newcastle (his love for the Dogies is unrivaled), ketchup (his favorite sauce) and tacos (his favorite food).
But what Lewis really loves is taking control of the Dogie Cart, a golf cart used during football practice for everything from hauling water to taking injured players off the field.
“He loves driving the Dogie Cart,” Conzelman laughed. “In fact, he gets mad if anybody else drives it.”
Lewis drives the Dogie Cart, with Lax riding shotgun, from the practice field to the football storage shed, where they grab whatever is needed for the day. When Lewis gets behind the wheel, Lax sits calmly in the passenger seat despite Lewis’s sometimes erratic driving.
“Derek can’t drive, but he loves driving the Dogie Cart around,” Lax said. “Sometimes he likes to hit things.”
In his halted speech, Lewis explains it’s only because he was following the coaches’ orders. They told him to watch the road, so he was looking out the side of the cart rather than where he was driving.
“Coach tells me I’m a crazy driver,” he said.
Lewis has been driving the Dogie Cart almost ever since he became a manager four years ago. Initially, when Conzelman approached Lewis about taking the job, Lewis turned him down. He changed his mind as the season approached, and when Conzelman asked him again Lewis agreed to do it.
Barb and Randy Lewis, Derek’s parents, didn’t know right away their only son had Down syndrome.
“It’s very emotional at first when you find out,” Barb said. “We didn’t find out until he was 10 days old that (the doctor) suspected he had Down syndrome. And then it seemed like we had to wait forever because he had some of the characteristics, but not others.”
They took Derek to another doctor in Rapid City, South Dakota, who sent them to a specialist.
“The specialist told us, ‘I think he’s fine. I think he’s a normal little boy,’” Randy said. “And then the results came back saying that he had Down syndrome.
“It was definitely a rollercoaster of highs and lows.”
Since then, the ups and downs have continued, although the good moments have far outweighed the bad.
“We’ve been blessed to have Derek in our lives,” Barb said. “Derek has taught me a lot. He’s taught me patience. He’s taught me forgiveness.”
Barb and Randy are quick to credit everyone at Weston County School District No. 1 with helping Derek enjoy his school years. And with helping them adjust to the hardships associated with raising a Down syndrome child.
“He loves school because that’s when he gets to be with everybody,” Barb said. “We were worried when he first started school because we didn’t know how he would do and how the other kids would treat him.
“But (the school district) sent me and his teacher to a Down Syndrome Conference, and that’s when I learned about the inclusion. I was worried because I didn’t know if they were just going to stick him in a room by himself.”
Rather than being separated from the other students, Derek took the same classes as his friends.
“He’s not going to learn 100 percent of what the other kids are learning in the class,” Barb said, “but he’s getting the social part of it and he picks up things that other kids maybe don’t.”
And the conferences that Derek’s teachers were required to attend helped in other ways.
“They were finding that some of what the teachers would learn at those conferences would actually benefit other students,” Randy said. “The administration has done a tremendous job helping educate people about Down syndrome. We’re very fortunate to be here in Newcastle.”
Scott Beehler made the mistake of betting against Derek Lewis.
Beehler, who teaches physical education and health at Newcastle Middle School, also is an assistant coach for the high school basketball team. He works primarily with the junior varsity.
Lewis played on the "C" team as a freshman, but Beehler was reluctant to let Lewis shoot in a game. Yet Lewis was persistent.
“I made him a deal,” Beehler said. “I told him if he could make five out of 10 3-pointers I would let him shoot a 3-pointer in a game. He must have practiced all summer because he came out the next year and made seven of 10 the first time he tried.”
Lewis, who is only able to play a few minutes at a time before getting winded, made 15 3-pointers his sophomore season. Last year he made nine. Both were tops among the junior varsity “C” team.
Ask Lewis if he’s a good 3-point shooter and he’ll answer with an emphatic “Yes!” before the question is finished. His favorite spot on the court is in the corner, where he proudly stands and shows off his picture-perfect shooting form.
I ask Lewis his favorite part about playing basketball. “My team passes me the ball and I shoot,” he answers.
“When Derek first started playing the other team wouldn’t really guard him,” Beehler said. “But then he started making shots and they didn’t know what to do.”
A vertebra that is out of line prevents Lewis from playing football, but doesn’t keep him from being part of the team. Conzelman had hopes of having Derek run a play in a controlled situation this season, but he admitted it probably won't happen.
Still, Lewis has an important role with the Dogies.
“When we kick off I run out and get the tee,” he said.
Conzelman doesn’t remember a time when Lewis, who is in his fourth year as manager, didn’t have that duty. There was one time, however, when Lewis forgot.
“I think that was because he was socializing with the players on the sidelines,” Barb said. “Derek just does his own thing out there, and it’s great.”
Derek Lewis has done things his way, whether it’s on the football field, the basketball court, in school, or at home.
Randy and Barb remember Derek taking part in talent contests when he was in grade school and laugh when they talk about him going into their bedroom, shutting the door, and singing at the top of his voice.
Senior Ethan Schuessler, who leads Class 2A in rushing, said Lewis helps keep the team loose.
“Whenever we’re joking around with him in the locker room he has the biggest smile,” he said. “It’s pretty awesome. And it’s great whenever he starts dancing … he’s got some pretty good moves.”
Lewis hopes to show off some of those moves next week at Newcastle’s homecoming; he’s a candidate for homecoming king.
As of now, Lewis doesn’t have a date. He’s asked if he has someone in mind to ask. “Yes,” he said, pointing to Lax. “Her.”
Tuesday’s practice ends with the Four-Quarter Drill, in which four cones are placed around the field, approximately 20 yards apart. Players sprint to the first cone before turning left and heading to the next cone. They follow the same pattern to the third cone, at which time they walk back to the start.
This is repeated four times, once for each quarter of a football game. Lewis takes part in the first two quarters but takes the third quarter off to catch his breath.
When it comes time to run the final sprint, Conzelman gives Lewis the option of running or sitting out. Lewis doesn’t hesitate – he’s running.
For the final sprint, Conzelman gives Lewis a head start and challenges the other players to catch him. They don’t.
“Derek’s love for the Dogies is through and through,” Conzelman said. “He does everything that he needs to do, from weight room sessions, to open gyms, to running and stretching with the team.
“I think it’s kind of humbling for the other guys because they look at him and realize everybody can’t play this great game.”
While it's doubtful Derek Lewis will play a down for the Dogies this season, his value to his teammates and coaches is immeasurable.
“He helps us keep things in perspective,” Conzelman said. “In the end, it is just a game.
“We always talk about handling adversity and he does that better than anybody. If we do lose a game he’s always looking ahead to that next week. He’s always positive.”
It’s that positive attitude, and not the fact he has Down syndrome, that people most associate with Lewis.
“Everybody knows Derek in Newcastle,” Barb said. “It’s at the point now where people look out for him. We have a very extended family.”