Declan Newkirk doesn’t wear a football uniform, but he’s as much a part of the Garner High School football team as the quarterback.
As the team’s manager, Declan, who is on the autism spectrum, is Trojan football’s biggest fan. He pumps up the players before games, excitedly paces the sideline during plays and helps the coach do whatever is needed.
Declan, 18, is a senior at Garner High, where football rules and the team has its eye on a state championship title this year. As he wraps up his last season with the Trojans, Declan says football has made his high school experience so much better than it could have been if he wasn’t the manager.
“It probably would have been a lot different,” he said. “I probably wouldn’t be this popular now.”
Nelson Smith, a former Garner High football coach who retired in June as the school’s athletic director, asked Declan three years ago to serve as team manager.
“To have Declan out there was just an inspiration,” he said. “Everyone needs to live their life like Declan.”
When he was young, Declan’s parents noticed developmental delays. His verbal skills were on track, but he had some issues with fine motor skills. He was diagnosed when he was 6 as being on the autism spectrum.
In middle school, Declan mostly bonded with teachers and adults, said his mother, Leah Newkirk.
“He really didn’t have much social interaction with his peers,” she said. “It was such a struggle through middle school, but high school was such an easy transition. And (football) helped that.”
Declan attends all the team’s practices, putting away the tackling pads and cruising around on a golf cart. He eats dinner with the team at First Baptist Church of Garner before every game.
During games, he sprints onto the field, his long legs pumping, every time the referee needs a new team ball. When a Trojan player attempts a field goal, Declan stands on the other side of the upright to retrieve the kick.
He said the best part is “having something to do after school.”
“It keeps me busy,” he said.
The friendships are special, too.
“He’s everybody’s friend,” said Noah Giroux, 17, a senior kicker for the Trojans. “He goes around the locker room talking to everybody. ... He’s very much the heart and soul of the team.”
Collin Eaddy, 17, a senior running back, said Declan is quick to offer high-fives and words of encouragement.
“Declan is a rallying point,” he said. “You’ve got your ups and downs, but Declan is the constant.”
Doing what he loves
Declan’s father, Sam Newkirk, works for The News & Observer’s sports department. As a “sports guy,” he hoped his children would take an interest in athletics.
Sam and Leah’s 19-year-old daughter, Hannah, a sophomore at Campbell University who is studying pre-pharmacy, is a second-degree black belt in karate.
Declan played basketball for four years when he was younger, but high school teams can be very competitive. He’s a huge sports fan, though – football, baseball, NASCAR.
Over the summer, he worked as a bat boy for the Carolina Mudcats baseball team.
Declan’s parents attend Garner High’s football games to see their son in action.
“I’m proud of him, because he’s doing something that he truly enjoys and loves,” Sam Newkirk said.
The family isn’t sure what’s next for Declan after high school, where he is in the occupational course of study. They’re interested in Beyond Academics, a four-year certificate program at UNC Greensboro for students with intellectual and developmental disabilities.
It often takes Declan a little longer to grasp instructions, but his work with the football team and with the Mudcats showed that he can learn new skills and follow instructions, his father said.
“It gave us an idea that yes, he could actually do a job outside of home,” Sam Newkirk said.
Part of the team
For now, the Newkirks are enjoying Declan’s last football season as a Trojan. Garner High will play Green Hope next Friday in the first round of the playoffs.
The team is going to miss “Dec-Man,” as head coach Thurman Leach calls him.
“This is a community that embraces this football team,” Leach said. “And Declan is part of that team, so we embrace Declan. ... There’s only one Dec-Man.”
Last Friday, the football game announcer recognized him during halftime. After the Trojans easily beat their opponent, Declan led his teammates in running across the field to the student section, known as the “Blue Crew.” Together they all chanted, “I believe that we just won.”
At that moment, Declan wasn’t a kid with special needs. He was just a high school student who loves his team and loves being part of something bigger than himself.
Smith, the former Garner coach, is right: We should all live our lives like Declan.