The game between Poughkeepsie High School and Yorktown High School was officially over when referees added 30 seconds to the clock and the two teams lined up for one final play. The hometown team, Yorktown, snapped the ball at the 20-yard line and quickly handed it off to 18-year-old Josiah O’Brien, who had lined up at the running back position. The crowd of students and families cheered wildly as the offensive line cleared a pathway for O’Brien and as the road team’s tacklers dove to the ground—O’Brien just barely out of their grasp. Racing forward to cheers of “Josiah! Josiah!” O’Brien reached the end zone for a touchdown, a momentous conclusion to the Oct. 18 game.
For O’Brien, a young man with Down syndrome, the play was a dream come true. For Yorktown coach Mike Rescigno and the entire football team, the play was an opportunity for O’Brien “to get his due.”
“I know that he lives for game day in the same exact manner that any coach or player ever has,” Rescigno told the Yorktown-Somers Patch. “The fact that he [had] the opportunity to contribute with his teammates on the field itself is symbolic in many ways.”
‘When we see something happen, like we saw last Friday night, we are humbled by it and we rejoice in it because we see somebody who is being lifted up. It’s part of the image of God in us.’ —Dan O’brien
Rescigno came up with the idea for the play while considering how best to honor all the seniors on the team, which includes O’Brien. O’Brien served as team manager for four years—mostly carrying water and supplies for the players and providing moral support. But Rescigno placed him, number 75, on the team’s roster for his senior year. The Yorktown team showed overwhelming support, and Poughkeepsie gladly agreed to its part in the plan.
“When we see something happen, like we saw last Friday night, we are humbled by it and we rejoice in it because we see somebody who is being lifted up,” said O’Brien’s father, Rev. Dan O’Brien of Calvary Bible Church. “It’s part of the image of God in us.”
Josiah O’Brien is deeply invested in his faith. He carries his Bible to school with him every day, listens to Christian music on his iPod, recites verses from Psalm 1, and is willing to talk about his faith with teammates and friends. He has talked to classmates about the dangers of alcohol and has, on multiple occasions, invited his coach to attend church. At church, Josiah O’Brien participates in teen ministries and activities.
“Josiah is a spiritually grounded kid who reminds you what life is all about,” Rescigno said. “And he has taught me about leadership. After one game he told me, ‘Coach, we need to throw more and you need to yell less.’ And that’s something I’ll never forget.”
Josiah O’Brien is the youngest of four in the O’Brien family, a tight-knit group that has worked hard to support him. The young man’s passion for football developed as his two older brothers played for the high-school team. Because his brother Jonathan, who is currently working on a two-year mission internship in Brazil, played the drums at their church, Josiah has also taken up percussion instruments. He plays the drums, the box drum, and the djembe, practicing for an hour or more every afternoon after school. On occasion, the church worship team invites Josiah to play with them during services.
More than 400,000 people live with Down syndrome in the United States. According to a study published in 2009, almost 92 percent of women in Europe and the United States who receive a definitive prenatal diagnosis of Down syndrome choose to terminate their pregnancy.
“God has created all of us for a purpose, and He has given each of us a role to play to bring Him glory,” Dan O’Brien said. “We know life is more than how far can you throw a football or [what] your IQ [is]. We know that life is deeper than that. This gives us the opportunity to rejoice in the fact that life is more than that.”