Josef Marlow hasn’t had the easiest or most straightforward path to football. Diagnosed with Autism from a young age, Marlow has always had a particular way of doing things and interacting with the world around him. Days spent traveling to and from occupational and speech-language therapy everyday with his mother, Cher, were the norm during his childhood, as were experiences around other children in which Josef was ostracized and had difficulties meshing with others.
Desperate to find a system of support for her son, Cher took the advice of Josef’s therapist and enrolled him in sports for the structure and routine, beginning with flag football. Josef took to the sport immediately and within two years enrolled in Pop Warner tackle football, blossoming under the guidance of coach Matt Connally.
“He was an outside kid coming in since they were five and six, and he was eight,” Cher told the Tallahassee (Fla.) Democrat earlier this year. “They just welcomed him with open arms. They motivated him on the field. Some of them questioned why he did things a certain way or acted a certain way, and Coach Connelly explained to them that Josef has Autism, but that doesn't make him different.”
Now at Chiles High School in Tallahassee, Marlow has flourished under the staff there, led by Head Coach Kevin Pettis. Pettis and four of his coaches – Wide Receiver Coach Justin Kurlander, Quarterbacks Coach John Hernandez, Defensive Coordinator Bill Ragans, and Defensive Line Coach Trey Pettis – are all trained in working with students enrolled in Exceptional Student Education.
Exceptional Student Education, described by the Florida Department of Education, is to help each child with a disability progress in school and prepare for life after school. This creates an environment where Josef can both on the field and in the classroom.
The impact made on Marlow by his involvement with the football program at Chiles has been immediate and significant.
“Josef has good days and bad days, but the thing that makes him very important to our program is he’s always there,” Pettis told the Tallahassee Democrat this past November. “I don't think he’s ever missed a single practice. Not one. I cannot recall him missing a single practice...I can't ever recall him having a bad day on game day. He loves it.
“He’s never one time complained to me about playing time. He’s just one of those kids that does what he’s supposed to be, and he tries to help everybody.”
“When he was first diagnosed, they said he wasn't going to do a lot of things and he exceeded that,” added Cher Marlow. “For me, the game saved us.
“I don't think I would be able to live in a life where there was a cap on what my child can and can't do. When I tell people my son is Autistic, I don't want people to feel sorry for him or me but want them to see how he's flourished and everything he's doing."
For Josef Marlow, football has been more than just a sport. It has been a platform on which he has been challenged, has grown, has made friends and relationships that are solid, and has put himself on a path to a better life.
Football is a game - America’s favorite one. But it's so much more than that to the people who love it.
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