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Muscular dystrophy doesn't stop Keegan Erbst from being part of the team

COMMENTARY— At Sequoyah Middle School in Edmond, a rough football season has been redeemed by some eighth-graders who have redefined what it takes to be a teammate by remembering what it means to be a friend.
by Jenni Carlson Published: October 24, 2012

EDMOND — Look in the middle of the boys clad in purple jerseys and white helmets, and you'll see the red head.

He wears no helmet, but that purple jersey that he has on is something special.

The other boys raise their arms into the air, ready to break the huddle and start the game. Their hands create a dome over the red head.

Keegan Erbst doesn't raise his arm.

He can't.

“One, two, three!” he yells.

“Cougars!” the boys answer.

As they run onto the field, Keegan instead powers his motorized wheelchair to the sideline. He has never played a down of organized football, and he never will.

Keegan has muscular dystrophy.

The disease is relentlessly attacking Keegan's muscles, slowly but surely rendering them unusable. He can't run, can't jump, can't play the sports that he loves so much.

But because of three of his best buddies, he is now part of the football team at Sequoyah Middle School in Edmond.

While we rarely delve into the world of middle school sports, wonderfully rare stories create an exception. This is one of those times, a tale of friendship that transcends its subjects' ages.

It starts with Keegan and Lucas Coker. The boys met when they were only 4 years old. They became fast friends.

In second grade, they met Colton James, and the two friends became three.

In third grade, they met Parker Tumelson, and three became four.

Keegan never ran the fastest or jumped the highest. When he was 6 years old, he was diagnosed with Duchenne muscular dystrophy, an especially aggressive form of the incurable disease. It takes away the ability to walk, the ability to lift objects, and eventually causes heart disease and breathing difficulties that often prove fatal when the patients are only in their 20s.

None of that, though, stopped Keegan from growing into a normal kid. He built rockets at science camp. He fell in love with OU football. He became an Xbox junkie.

And he played with his buddies.

They would play football at recess. Then, when it was no longer football season, they'd play basketball or baseball or soccer or whatever else was in season.

Some of the other kids weren't so inclusive.

Once on the playground, a kid pushed him down.

“And we shoved that other kid off him and helped Keegan back up,” Colton said proudly.

Even when Keegan had to start using a wheelchair in fourth grade, Lucas, Colton and Parker still found ways to include him. He would play center and snap the ball. Or he would play quarterback and flip them the ball. Or he would play receiver and catch the ball in his lap.

“They didn't leave him, didn't push him by the wayside,” Keegan's dad, Scott, said. “Whatever they did, they were all together.”

But when Lucas, Colton and Parker started playing school ball as seventh graders a year ago, there wasn't a way to include Keegan.

Or was there?

They started tossing around the idea of getting him involved with the team. Maybe he could have a jersey. Maybe he could come to games and be on the sideline.

Take a moment and consider that we're talking about middle school boys here. How often do teenagers think of anyone other than themselves?

When Lucas, Colton and Parker went to check out their football equipment earlier this fall, they decided they wanted Keegan to have a jersey.

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by Jenni Carlson
Jenni Carlson, a sports columnist at The Oklahoman since 1999, came by her love of sports honestly. She grew up in a sports-loving family in Kansas. Her dad coached baseball and did color commentary on the radio for the high school football...
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