High School Sports

More than a touchdown: Steilacoom player with autism ignites team with 50-yard catch

Aaron Smith caught a pass early in the third quarter and ran into the end zone for a 50-yard score.

But it was not about the touchdown.

The Steilacoom High School senior was diagnosed with autism when he was 2, and his mother said doctors told her he would never talk or be socially interactive.

On the second snap he’s played in a varsity game this season — the first on offense — Smith beat his defender on a streak down the middle of the field and quarterback Anthony Leiato hit him with a pass. Clover Park’s safety fell down and Smith sprinted for the touchdown in Steilacoom’s eventual 62-6 victory on Friday.

Smith said Marques Hampton Jr. was the first to meet him and give him a hug, and the crowd chanted his name, “Aaron, Aaron, Aaron.”

“We saw a spark that went through the entire team. It was like a trail of gasoline lit on fire,” said first-year Steilacoom coach Rich Lane. “You just kind of saw this, ‘Aaron caught that!?’ And everyone was going crazy.

“And it wasn’t just that it was a special ed person catching a touchdown. It’s that Aaron earned that against a varsity team in meaningful minutes.”

It wasn’t set up or discussed with Clover Park. It was a spur-of-the-moment play, with Steilacoom leading, 41-6. Lane had promised that after not getting Smith in during a game earlier this season, Smith would be the first substitute at the next opportunity.

Smith’s mother, Ana Figueroa, said she was screaming as soon as he caught the pass and didn’t stop until he was off the field.

“I saw the ball in the air and I was like, ‘Oh, my gosh, they are going to throw the ball to Aaron,’ ” Figueroa said. “And so when he caught that ball and when he ran into the end zone, it was like, ‘Wow.’ It was like a ‘Rudy’ moment.

“And what I mean by that is that it was not about the touchdown. A lot of people don’t understand what it’s like to have a loved one with autism. But when I saw the coaches, when I saw the teammates, when I saw the kids even in the stands, they stood up and they started cheering, ‘Aaron, Aaron, Aaron.’

Figueroa’s voice began to quiver as she continued.

“To me it was like, ‘Wow, they understand. They see a young kid who struggles every day, and we know how hard he works — and it’s not just football. It’s in school, it’s socially, it’s in being accepted. This guy persevered.’ 

Smith described the play matter-of-factly.

“I was getting warmed up, getting ready and (Leiato) says, ‘Aaron, are you sure you know what to do?’ ‘Yeah, I know what to do,’ ” Smith said. “Number 40 was covering me on the right side and, of course, through my hard work over the past three months I was able to run as fast as I can.

“The ball might have been a little bit overthrown, and all the sudden I had to run like crazy and I made the catch.”

Lane said he had put Smith in on a special-teams play earlier in the season, but Smith didn’t stop after the whistle had been blown and he was called for a penalty and hadn’t played since.

He said Smith is the team motivator for how hard he plays, especially on the scout team. On Lane’s first day as coach, he said Smith took seven pages of notes. He didn’t know then that Smith had autism.

“And afterward he says, ‘Coach, I’m going to be ready to play for you this year. I know I won’t play a lot, but whenever you call on me, I’m going to be ready.

“We had an opportunity to get him in early in the third quarter (Friday) and I said, ‘Aaron, you are going to go in, you are going to run this route and we are going to throw it to you. And he caught it, a couple of guys fell down and he took it to the house. I couldn’t have been happier. He came off the field and was so ecstatic. It was amazing.”