Card football: Gideon's momentGideon Hartsell, a special needs student at JHS, works his way onto the football field
By: Eric Morken, Alexandria Echo Press
Every now and then fans are reminded in sports that the most important outcome of a game is not always the final score.
That scene played out on a hot Friday night two weeks ago when Alexandria’s Gideon Hartsell got an opportunity he won’t soon forget. Hartsell, a special needs senior at Jefferson high school, actively participated in football through his freshman year before taking over as the student manager for the varsity team as a sophomore.
Hartsell has been on the Alexandria sideline in jeans and his jersey every game since then. But on Parents’ Night in the Cardinals’ home opener against St. Cloud Tech, he stood in full pads, wearing the same No. 47 jersey that two of his older brothers had worn before him as seniors.
Hartsell was announced as the Cardinals’ Player of the Week before the game. He then waited anxiously for his chance to take the field in a varsity game for the first time. Hartsell met with all the coaches the Monday leading up to the game where he was asked how he felt about kicking the extra point after the team’s first touchdown.
“He’s kind of a talkative kid,” head coach Mike Empting said. “He’s super into sports, so he’s fully aware of the significance of going in and kicking a point after and the impact that could have on a game…initially he was kind of speechless. One of us asked him, ‘are you OK with this?’ He looked up with a smile and just said, ‘heck yeah!’ ”
Hartsell had to wait through the first half as Alexandria was held to a field goal before the break. On the second half kickoff, Gideon Burnham, a classmate of Hartsell’s at Zion Lutheran School through 8th grade, gave his teammate a chance with an 88-yard return for a touchdown.
Hartsell took the field with all eyes in a packed Citizen’s Field on him. Senior Tanner Rice put down the hold and Hartsell followed through on the kick.
The ball fell short of the uprights, but one could never tell by the reaction of his teammates. The rest of the Cardinals’ kicking unit surrounded him near the 10-yard line. Hartsell’s face lit up when senior captains Brock Wood and Jesse Hacker lifted him onto their shoulders and carried him off the field.
“Lots of tears,” his mother, Shirley, said of watching her youngest of nine children take the field. “It was very emotional. Very proud of him.”
Earning his shot
Shirley has seen her son’s passion for sports from the time he was a toddler. He grew up eager to participate in things like t-ball and any other sports that his siblings were playing in the back yard. He couldn’t always keep up, but that never affected his desire to participate.
“I try my best,” Gideon said.
He has continued to put everything he has into his role as student manager. Hartsell is on the practice field before a lot of his teammates, organizing footballs, cones and doing anything else he can to help things run smoothly.
“He does such a great job,” Empting said. “Every day he is out there for practice. Every game he has been there since his sophomore year. He works as hard as some of the [players] do in practice, getting things ready, making sure everything is in place for practice to get started.”
In the coaches’ eyes, his hard work had earned him the chance to get on the field. Defensive coordinator Russ Hinrichs brought the idea to Empting after last season. They went over all the different scenarios, including what to do if the score was close late in the game.
“We went over it all,” Empting said. “The bottom line is that we were going to do it. It didn’t matter the situation, close game or not, the first time we scored that night, he was going to go in and kick the extra point.”
True to their word
Sure enough, the game was close. Burnham’s touchdown gave Alexandria a 9-7 lead. The Cardinals come into every season hoping to compete at the top of the Central Lakes Conference and needed to win the game to keep from falling to 0-2.
All of that was secondary in this moment. Empting stayed true to his word and sent Hartsell in with his parents and many of his siblings watching on.
“It could have lost the game,” Shirley said. “It could have boiled down to that, but [Empting] still went for it. I just have the utmost respect for him and give him credit for doing that.”
Shirley called it a teaching moment for anyone who saw it. Empting thought of it as just the right thing to do.
“I really believe in the fact that our football team is a family,” he said. “The players that have come and gone through here, they’re always welcome back into the locker room…Gideon and his family have been a huge part of our football family for a long time. It just felt like giving back to one of your own.”
It ended up not coming down to that one point. The Tigers scored a touchdown on their first drive of the second half and held on for the 14-9 win. At least for one night, that final score did not feel like the most important outcome of the game.
“It was an awesome night,” Shirley said. “It was a night he will never forget. We won’t either.”