At Atlee High School, inclusion is part of the football team’s playbook

Posted at 7:33 AM, Feb 06, 2019

MECHANICSVILLE, Va.  -  Off-season practice for the Atlee Raiders high school football team is a time to get physically fit.  It’s also a time to learn how to win.

"Teamwork is probably one of the biggest things out of all of it," freshman Gabe Sheffield said. "Teamwork; hard work."

Gabe remembers a hard workout last summer.

"Coach got us in the huddle and was like, 'we have a new member of our team.  His name is Konor.'"

Konor McGann/9th Grade

Konor McGann's mom Patty was worried about her son's transition from middle school to high school.

Konor was born with Down Syndrome and autism.

He was both shy and introverted, she said.

She spoke with Atlee head football coach Matt Gray about her son.

"Her questions were 'How can I get him involved?'" Coach Gray recalled.   "And I'm like, 'I got an idea.'"

Matt Gray/Head Football Coach

That idea? Make Konor a member of the football team -- as a team manager.

"We were very skeptical at first if this would work," Patty admitted. "And these boys have embraced him 100 percent from the get-go."

Patty McGann/Konor's Mom

With the players treating Konor him like one of their own, Konor started to come out of his shell.

It took a while, but eventually he was helping with the equipment and filling up water bottles.

He'd join the players for practices; stretching and hitting the blocking dummies.

It was easy to see this was making a big difference for Konor.

"I think it helped him adapt to high school,” Gabe said. "It helped him get more friends. I see him around the hallways and he's high-fiving all the football players. He's just one happy kid."

"I have seen enormous growth in Konor," his mom added. "He is far more independent than he was before."

Coach Gray said he believed Konor did just as much for the rest of the team.

"Being part of the team is being part of something bigger than yourself," Coach Gray said. "And I think that's what a lot of the guys experienced this year."

While many of the players will tell you Konor is their teammate, Gabe is quick to tell you, he's his friend.

"If I'm having a down day and I see him on the football field or even in school, I'm like, well... you can't be sad when you see that kid."

Building Better Minds airs Wednesday on CBS 6 at 6 a.m.