For the other team, it was just another captains’ meeting before a football game.
But for one North Marion Husky, it was a moment to shine.
“And your final North Marion captain, No. 52, simply known as E-L-I ... Eli Shenal,” the announcer said over the loud speaker to cheers from the crowd.
Eli, who has Down syndrome and has been the equipment manager for the Huskies football team for four years, had earned his right to be a captain for the game against Lewis County this year.
“We picked our captains week to week this year based on performance the week prior,” North Marion head coach Daran Hays said. “It was the least we could do for him. It was to show him how much we appreciate what he does for us.”
When Eli walked out as a captain, Bob Shenal, Eli’s father, said it was a moment he’ll never forget.
“It was a great feeling to know his teammates and his coaches, during his senior season, allowed him to do something like that,” Bob said. “It thrilled Eli to do that, and it always thrilled him to be allowed to wear the jersey.”
Getting Eli on the team four years ago was one of the best things Bob and his wife Elizabeth did.
Bob said his niece approached Hays about Eli helping out with the football team. Bob said he was hesitant to allow Eli to work with the team at first.
“He was new at school. He was a freshman. I wasn’t really sure he should take something like that on,” Bob said. “But we thought now or never was probably better, and it was one of the best things that we did.”
Bob said from day one, Eli was welcomed onto the team by all players and coaches.
“They showed him a lot of kindness,” Bob said. “It was good for him, and I think it was also good for the boys.”
Senior running back Ryan Elliott has known Eli for years, and said it was great having him on the team. Ryan said Eli is always happy, has a smile on his face and is in a great mood.
“He’s always pumping players up, and he’s fun to be around,” Ryan said. “He’s got more pride than anyone I know.”
Ryan said Eli was shy when he first came on the team, but when he became comfortable around the team, his personality came out.
“He’s just a great guy,” Ryan said. “Over time he started speaking up more and pumping players and the crowd up. He was always looking for a Husky win.”
During that Lewis County game, Ryan, who was a captain for the game, said it was great to walk out with Eli as a captain.
“He’s a big part of our team, and he deserved it,” Ryan said.
Ryan said when Eli first joined the team, he thought he was just going to be helping with water and equipment, but it became more than that.
“He really became a part of the team and the family that we had,” Ryan said. “He’s a great friend now.”
The first practice Eli came to as a freshman, Bob said Hays told the team what he expected from them with Eli around.
“Coach Hays told them to treat him as a teammate even though he couldn’t play,” Bob said. “Within a couple of weeks he became comfortable with the players. The quarterback at the time, Shawn McCoy, would go out of his way to help Eli, and there were other players that did the same.”
From that day forward, on Friday nights, Eli could either be seen leading the team out of the Husky arch or grabbing the tee after a kickoff, but most of the time Eli was cheering on the Huskies from the sideline.
“He is energetic,” Hays said. “Sometimes he would get so excited about a play we couldn’t understand what he was saying.”
Bob would stay with Eli on the sidelines, reminding him to get the tee or pass out water, but he was always there to encourage his son.
“I want to encourage Eli to do everything he can do and to enjoy life to the fullest,” Bob said.
Bob said having Eli on the team has been a positive experience.
“Anytime we are out somewhere, people know Eli,” he said. “Sometimes we won’t know who they are, but they come up and talk to Eli and he knows them.”
Bob said Eli has enjoyed helping the football team and being around the players and coaching staff.
“Coach Hays is molding these boys into young men,” Bob said. “Eli couldn’t have had a better coaching staff than North Marion’s. They have just been so great for Eli.”
In the four years Eli has been with the team, Hays said he has grown both with knowledge of football and as a person.
“He went from not knowing a whole lot about football to learning almost everything there is to know,” Hays said. “He knows more about the game than most adults. He has really blossomed.”
Eli has formed a strong passion for football — so strong that Hays said he’ll draw up plays for the team.
“I’ll come into my office and Eli is sitting there drawing up plays, asking me what I think about the other team’s defense, and my whole white board will be full of plays,” Hays said.
Hays said Eli has been extremely dedicated to the North Marion football program over the years.
“You can probably count on your hand how many practices he has missed since his freshman year,” Hays said.
With this year being Eli’s senior year, Hays said he took on a leadership role just like the other seniors. After a game — whether it was a win or loss — Hays said Eli was there to encourage the team.
“I would ask if anyone has anything to add after a practice and only one hand would be up, and that was Eli’s,” Hays said.
Before the game against Lincoln, Eli addressed the team, saying, “We’re not going to win with speed. We’re not going to win passing. We’re going to win this battle up front from the tackle to the tackle.”
The Huskies went on to defeat Lincoln, 23-14.
For the players and coaches of the North Marion football team, having Eli with them has been a great experience. Although he didn’t get to play football, Eli was given an award for his work with the team. He was one of five recipients of the 2013 “Yes I Can Award.”
“It’s been a really heartwarming experience to have had him on the team,” Hays said. “He’s one-of-a-kind. I wouldn’t trade him for anything.”
Email Emily Gallagher at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow her on Twitter @EGallagherTWV.
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