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.
“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.
They didn't involve their parents. They didn't clear it with the principal. They knew what they wanted to do.
“Coach, we want to take this jersey and take it to Keegan,” they told their coach, Brandan Rosa, “and make him feel a part of the team.”
“Of course,” he told them. “Go ahead.”
The next day, they went into science class to spring their surprise on Keegan. Lucas had the home jersey, Colton had the away jersey.
“And Parker was just there smilin' away,” Colton said.
So was Keegan.
The boys wanted him to wear his jersey on game days. Come to games. Be on the sidelines.
They wanted him to be part of the team.
“Keegan's not one to put himself in the limelight,” his dad said. “He doesn't like to be the center of attention in any way, shape or form.”
The local arm of the Muscular Dystrophy Association asked him to be a spokesman. He didn't want to do it.
But being on the football team?
Keegan was in.
It wasn't long before everyone else at Sequoyah joined in, too. The principal presented Keegan with a laminated certificate proclaiming him an honorary team captain. The coach gave Keegan sideline passes for himself and his dad. The counselor recognized Lucas, Colton and Parker for what they'd done for Keegan. The Erbst family even sent letters to the boys' parents to try and thank them for how well they'd raised their sons.
The boys say all of that's been nice, but they don't think what they did for Keegan was anything special.
“Just trying to be good friends,” Parker said.
“Just trying to set good examples,” Colton said.
“Make him feel part of the team,” Lucas said.
Keegan has definitely felt a part. He not only breaks the huddle but also goes to mid-field for the coin toss, prays with his teammates, then huddles with them at halftime and after the games.
Of course, there are times when he wishes he could be on the field, running like Lucas or hitting like Colton or jumping like Parker. But regardless of that, he feels like a part of this team.
He feels like a Cougar.
“It's been pretty cool,” Keegan said his buddies making him part of the team. “I think it's just awesome that they decided to do that for me.”
Thursday night is Sequoyah's final game of the season. While it's been a tough year — the Cougars finally won their first game last week — you wouldn't know it talking to Lucas, Colton and Parker.
Colton recounts a story about their game a week ago when Keegan's name was mentioned during the team introductions by the PA announcer.
“It was pretty cool,” Colton said, smiling.
None of the boys plan on playing football as freshmen next year at Edmond North. Baseball is their primary sport, and all of three of them expects to focus on it.
“We'll get him a jersey,” Parker said, talking with an authority that makes you believe him.
Colton said, “It's definitely not a one-year thing. It's definitely going to be continued.”
Keegan has always been a part of their team.
And he always will be.
Jenni Carlson: Jenni can be reached at (405) 475-4125. You can also like her at facebook.com/JenniCarlsonOK, follow her at twitter.com/jennicarlson_ok or view her personality page at newsok.com/jennicarlson.