Max Earl was the first player jogging out of the tunnel and he let the Kangs’ presence be known with his arms raised and a yell as they headed toward the Memorial Stadium field.
The Lake Washington High junior, who has Down syndrome, has suited up with the Kangs all season and was enthusiastically by his teammates’ side for their 11th game of the year in Seattle on Friday in the 3A state playoffs against Eastside Catholic. The Kangs lost and the season ended, but Earl made sure to dole out as many hugs as he could to the players following the game.
“Max is great, he’s a great energy at practice, love having him around,” said senior Brady Gockel. “He’s always yelling in your face and he’s always getting you excited. When you’re down, he can tell, he comes over and gives you hugs and stuff like that.”
Following the Eastside Catholic game, Earl — with his dad Jake by his side — looked around the stadium and smiled. He enjoys being under the lights with his Kangs on game night.
“Feels awesome,” he said about running onto the field at the start and excitedly watching the games on the sidelines with his dad.
His words of advice to the varsity players before each game: “Let’s get the win,” he added with gusto.
Earl, 16, served as the team’s water boy and cheerleader the last two seasons, and he wanted to go full uniform with shoulder pads, helmet and cleats this time out.
“We were both very nervous. With his dad being part of the coaching staff, I felt a little better,” said mom, Lisa. “He played for JV and while he has almost no playing experience, he got out there and forced himself into the huddles, did drills and made them pay attention to him. The head JV coach included him in one play every game but one.”
During those plays, which were arranged with the other team’s coach, Max grabbed a handoff and ran 80 yards for a touchdown while all the players from both teams excitedly followed him down the sidelines at the end of games. Lisa said those were amazing and inspiring moments.
“Max is a very outgoing and loving kid. He truly loves everyone and his energy and excitement for the game of football is infectious,” Lisa said. “It’s not easy to get a child with Down syndrome involved in activities such as this, so there are challenges with getting him on the field more often. Kids don’t want to hurt him.”
She notes that Max can learn just like all the other kids, and when other Kangs help him grasp plays on the field and provide support, it’s a joyful experience for Lisa.
Same goes for Jake: “It excites me, it’s awesome, being able to have him down on the field being with his peers, enjoying the time with his friends and his classmates and being accepted.”
LW varsity head coach Andy Arena was thrilled to have Max practice with the team. They gave him a team award and showed a highlight video of one of his scores, which was a special moment, Arena said.
“The kids are very respectful to him, which is great. I think it kind of goes along with our core beliefs. I think it’s a good example for our kids how you wanna treat people,” Arena added.
Max’s sports life doesn’t end with football, as he’ll participate in wrestling starting next week.