David J. Kim, Louisville Courier Journal, Published Oct 29, 2019/Photo: Sam Upshaw Jr./Courier Journal
William Smith paces the sidelines during North Oldham football games. The sophomore is often the loudest on the field, cheering on his Mustangs even when they’re losing, even when there’s a running clock in effect.
Sometimes, he ventures into the student section, urging home fans to get rowdier. They oblige.
But he’s more than just a student manager. If you get the chance to talk to him, ask him any football-related question — particularly about the Super Bowl. The scores, the stats of the game, the point spread, MVP, anything. He always has time to tell you the answer from his memory.
“Hey, Will, who won the Super Bowl 29?”
“The 49ers scored 49 points against the Chargers, who scored 26,” Smith responded before an October practice. “It’s actually the highest scoring Super Bowl of all time. Higher than (Super Bowl) 52.”
“Do you know halftime performers too? Do you know who performed at Super Bowl 47?”
“It was Beyoncé and that was when the infamous blackout happened,” he answered. “The Ravens and the 49ers played, by the way.”
You can Google or ask Alexa to see if he got it correct. Or we can save you the time — he did.
If you still have doubts about the authenticity of his astonishing gift, just ask him. He’ll be more than happy to answer. The whole team can vouch too.
“He is like a dictionary,” said Peyton Coffey, a waterboy for the Mustangs. “You could ask him anything and he’ll tell you. It’s crazy.”
Said North Oldham football coach Joe Gamsky: “His football knowledge and the stats and games he can recite makes you want to grade him versus Google and see if he knows more than Google. I’d put my money on William.”
How he can list all the stats and teams, along with the list of U.S. presidents in order and their term years, is because he has Asperger syndrome, which he was diagnosed with at 8 years old.
Asperger’s is a developmental disorder and a condition on the autism spectrum. People with Asperger’s have difficulty understanding social conventions and social cues and can have uncoordinated movements. They can also have remarkable focus and persistence.
“That’s the blessing and the curse of living with autism,” said Gamsky, who also teaches special education at the school. “Kids get super hyperfocused in one area and learn everything they can and they can memorize it and they’ll never forget it. Football happens to be his thing.”
Smith’s mother, Sarah Smith, said he was spelling names with refrigerator magnets before he was 1. A year later, he could identify three-digit prime numbers.
“We’ve done a lot of testing,” she said. “On the subjects that he chose to participate in, he was very high. On the subjects that he deems stupid, he refused to answer the question.”
Numbers, statistics and charts are what he obsesses over. Add his passion football, particularly his favorite team, University of Louisville, and his favorite player, Lamar Jackson, and he loves it even more.
But socially, there are many aspects that he struggles with. He got kicked out of kindergarten on his fourth day because he kept leaving the classroom and went to the principal’s office to read the paperwork to her. His disruptive behavior was too much for those around him and he was put in a class for kids who were on the autism spectrum. These days, he has a habit of unconsciously tucking his right arm under his shirt.
“All parents are going to worry, but I worry especially on the social aspect,” Susan said. “He does really want to get out there and meet people and comes off as being awkward.”
That was the case when Smith joined the North Oldham football team this summer. Both he and his mother expressed interest to Gamsky after they first met in eighth grade as part of a school program that allowed students in special education to meet their future high school teachers. Gamsky, who himself went through a special education plan growing up, connected with Smith due to their shared love for football.
But he was heedful of immediately accepting Smith to the team.
“I had some concerns with him being able to understand the boundaries of where the field was and where he can go and can’t go what he can say and can’t say,” he said. “Who he can talk to who you can’t — all the social things around the game.”
The questions that Gamsky, perhaps the coach who could best relate to Smith, asked himself seemed endless.
“Is he going to be able to follow directions? Is he going to be able to listen to me when I need him to? Is he going to be able to calm down given the frustrating situation occurs? I told him we’d do a trial run in June.”
Consider his trial run a success.
“I like watching football,” Smith said. “I’ve always wanted to be on a team. Now, instead, I’m one step further on the sideline.”
The two signed a contract that stated Smith’s expectations — staying on the sidelines, no interrupting when coaches are talking, keeping hands to self — and jobs — wash hands, empty water bottles, take care of equipment, keep time.
“When coach got here, he said, ‘This is my boy, Will,’” said sophomore running back and safety Benjamin Becerra, who’s known Smith since sixth grade. “He made it known that he was on the team. If you had any questions about it, they were gone within a few days because he became part of the team even though he’s not a player.”
Gamsky and Smith announced the contract to the team to ensure the players also kept him accountable, though his teammates were hesitant at first.
“It was a pretty normal reaction, to be honest,” Gamsky said. “Anytime, anybody in society that shows up in a group organization that’s a little bit different, you always get some weird look and the side eyes with your friends. I told the kids if he’s doing these things when he’s not supposed to, just like any other teammate, you have the right to hold him accountable. They loosened up to him after that.”
Smith’s responsibilities have been tweaked since. He learned that he can’t hold the water bottle and fill it up at the same time. During practice, the sophomore is now responsible for distributing and collecting skull caps, which distinguish the offense and the defense. While the practices are going on, he stays on the sideline and throws the ball with injured players. During games, he’s the hype man.
After an early season loss in which many fans left by halftime, Smith went to the stands after the game to thank each remaining fan for staying and cheering for the whole game.
His mother was deeply moved by his gesture.
“He told me, ‘I didn’t think it was nice that they were all leaving because the team was losing. They were trying the hardest they could, so I thanked them for staying.’”
North Oldham has two student managers besides Smith who perform other tasks — keeping players hydrated, setting up practice fields, etc.
“It’s definitely helped him understand the boundaries of football, but life has boundaries, right? I think he’s starting to grasp the boundaries of what is socially acceptable and what is not,” Gamsky said. “That’s something the school has been working with him since he started public schooling.”
The most fascinating part of having Smith around the team, even to those who’s known William for a long time, is still his encyclopedic knowledge. Gamsky said it adds to the culture around the team.
Smith might randomly tell you a fact about your favorite football team that you never knew. Or, coaches and players will ask him a question, without having any idea what the answer is, just to be amazed by his responses.
But what Smith may not realize is the impact he has on those around him.
“It’s been positive for him I know. It’s also been a blessing to me because through the rough season that we’ve been having, he brightens your day. He brings smiles to your face,” Gamsky said. “Sometimes, we take that for granted in this profession on why we do this and why we coach. We want to win and we’re competitors but at the same time, for me, if I can impact a kid like William and make him believe that he can do anything that he wants, then I’ve done my job and I can retire happy when that day comes.”