To be called upon to lead a football team onto the field for a game is quite an honor.
But when the South Johnston football team looked to bestow that honor to one person for its final football game of the season, on senior night nonetheless, there was no better example to follow than that of Jaylen Stanley.
Jaylen, a fierce competitor whose favorite part of football is simply tackling, also possesses an inordinate amount of courage, heart and persistence, despite not being on the Trojans’ squad.
A second-grade student at Four Oaks Elementary, Jaylen suffers from a visual disorder called retinal dystrophy which has caused his eyesight to deteriorate.
His love of football, however, has not been deterred. Jaylen played defensive line the past three months in the South Johnston Pop Warner league and does not shy away from contact; he welcomes it.
In much the same way, everybody that has come into contact with the first-ever honorary deputy sheriff of Johnston County, has welcomed it and left those meetings better off for it.
Eric and Kelley Stanley, Jaylen’s parents, graduates of South Johnston High School and lifelong residents of the Four Oaks community, have seen first-hand the impact their son has had on those who meet him.
At the beginning of the football season, Pop Warner coach Chris Henley approached Eric and Kelley to see if they had a certain number in mind for their son to wear.
Upon hearing there was no desired number, Henley assigned Jaylen the No. 44 jersey citing the need for heart and perseverance in the fourth quarter of any game and noting Jaylen perhaps possessed twice the amount of any other player, thus the extra “4.”
The number “44” was painted onto the midfield logo and Jaylen walked straight to it after leading the Trojans onto the field at Ronald Avery Stadium for South Johnston’s game against Smithfield-Selma.
Jaylen visited a Trojans practice during the week before the game and was the hit of the week. South coach Shane Dular said each one of his players came up shook Jaylen’s hand, chatted with him a bit. At the end of South’s practice, Jaylen and standout South receiver Devin Harris ran laps together.
“We hope he got some enjoyment and motivation from wearing that uniform and being with us, but I know it had an impact on me and the players,” Dular said. “Many of them were talking about Jaylen the entire week. His courage, energy, and love of sports is wonderful and infectious. The Trojans were better for his visit.”
“It’s very special,” Kelley Stanley said of her son leading the team onto the field. “Just making him a jersey with his name on it and painting the field with his number – it means a lot.”
So on senior night, a bunch of experienced, tough and hard-nosed football players followed No. 44, a Trojan, onto the field – and left better off for doing so.