- Associated Press - Saturday, October 7, 2017

MITCHELL, S.D. (AP) - At halftime of every Kernel football game, “T-man” makes a point to ask his coach if he’s going to play that night.

Wearing his Mitchell football jersey and a smile of anticipation, Tayler Reichelt approaches head coach Kent VanOverschelde, who is always ready for the question, the Daily Republic reported .

The consistency and determination by Tayler, more commonly known as “T” or “T-man,” inspires both VanOverschelde and the entire team.

Tayler, born with Down syndrome, is a running back for the Mitchell High School football team. He rarely sees playing time, but that doesn’t discourage him from attending practice and games, in hopes he might see just a few minutes on the field.

“Instead of us being here for him, he’s here for us,” VanOverschelde said. “I think that’s the key to what he’s meant to our football program and what he means to our high school.”

Last month, Tayler’s positive presence on the football team and in school was affirmed by his classmates when he was named the homecoming king, an honor voted on entirely by the Mitchell High School student body.

Tayler, 19, is a senior at Mitchell High School. Having Down syndrome means he has an extra chromosome. It affects his speech, cognitive building and his fine motor skills, but according to his mother, Ann, he’s persevered through all of that.

Proven by his homecoming honor, Tayler is famous, his mother says, because everywhere they go, people recognize her son. Some who she doesn’t know will yell, “Hey, T,” waving and smiling.

The fun, outgoing and energetic high schooler loves to be a part of everything, Ann said. But football is likely his favorite.

Putting on his No. 43 jersey and running out onto the field with the rest of his friends and teammates has become Tayler’s favorite part of football.

A lot of times, Tayler can be seen running alongside the field during a game, raising his arms and getting the crowd fired up.

“He knows that opportunity is going to be short-lived,” VanOverschelde said of Tayler’s playing time. “His anticipation of that is something that I’ve come to really appreciate.”

VanOverschelde has known Tayler for the past six years, since Tayler started in the football program. He said all of the coaches and teammates have set expectations for Tayler.

Even on days when Tayler likes to limit himself, his team is there to keep pushing.

“They don’t treat him differently,” VanOverschelde said. “He’s part of the group and he’s expected to carry his weight within the team.”

And when Tayler succeeds in any aspect of the game, his team is there to celebrate, VanOverschelde said.

But Tayler is more than just another member of the team. VanOverschelde said when graduation nears and Tayler leaves the school, he will always be a friend.

VanOverschelde describes Tayler as compassionate and considerate. And when Vanoverschelde is down and needs a pick-me-up, he said Tayler can sense it.

“He’s always upbeat. He’s always got a smile on his face. There’s very few people that I get to see on a daily basis that are excited to see me. When I see Tayler, I can tell he’s excited to see me …” he said. “I try to reciprocate that and I try to give him that same type of respect back.”

The impact Tayler has on VanOverschelde is what the coach appreciates most.

The Reichelt family describes Tayler’s disability not as Down syndrome but as an “up syndrome,” seeing as he’s always smiling and treats everyone as a friend.

Ann said the family first found out Tayler had Down syndrome when he was born.

“We weren’t really sure what Down syndrome was,” she said. “What we did know is that it didn’t matter.”

Tayler is a middle child, with two younger siblings and two older siblings. His younger brother, Cody, 17, is in the same grade with Tayler, and also captain of the football team.

Just like any other kid, Tayler loves cruising around with his buddies, playing sports, video games and he loves Mountain Dew, Ann said.

But also like any other teenager, Tayler gets into trouble and he gets grounded.

“We don’t baby him,” said Tayler’s dad, Brian.

Similar to his coaches and teammates, Tayler is also held to a high standard by his family. Ann said they push him to be the best he can in school and on the football field.

And Tayler has a huge support system in his family, friends, classmates and the entire Mitchell community.

“He just fits in,” Ann said. “He’s so determined and positive, and he doesn’t shy away from anything. He wants to be a part of what everyone else is doing. … He might not be on the honor society, but he’s in the classroom and doing the best that he can.”

Tayler, who is also on the basketball team, is an inspiration to not just his friends and family, but also to others with disabilities.

“It’s hard to put into the words,” Ann said. “He’s just there making a difference. I think he’s paving the road for kids with disabilities.”

Tayler has worked at Pizza Ranch for the past three years. And when he graduates from Mitchell High School in May, he plans to take classes at Dakota Wesleyan University.

Ann said through LifeQuest, a Mitchell agency that provides services and supports people with developmental disabilities, Tayler is able to enroll at the college. And hopefully, she said, he can also be a part of other campus activities and, of course, the football team.

But the dreams don’t end there. Ann said Tayler also says he is someday going to move out, buy a camper and a big dog, and maybe have a farm.

“He’s got big plans for his future and we’re going to work earnestly to get him where he wants to be,” she said.

If anyone thinks of messing with Tayler, they’ve first got to go through his brother, Cody.

The brothers, who have been close since birth, are seniors at Mitchell High School, members of the football team, and they work together.

It’s like having twins, Ann said. From day one, the two have been very close. Even as infants, Tayler taught Cody how to crawl out of the crib. They were always into something, Ann said, and they were always together.

“We’re very proud,” Brian said. “It’s amazing. They both got such great hearts. For being teenagers, they’re not your typical teenagers. They open doors for people.”

Their relationship, according to VanOverschelde, is what has been key to Tayler growing and developing relationships with his classmates and his teammates.

It’s “unique and special,” VanOverschelde said, but Cody holds Tayler to a high expectation as far as behavior and work ethic in school and on the football field.

“He always has, in my opinion, an eye out for ‘T,’ ” VanOverschelde said.

Ann said once Cody graduates, he has plans to attend college. But whether that means he moves away from Mitchell or stays to attend Dakota Wesleyan, they are not sure.

Either way, Ann said she’s not worried about the boys. The close-knit family comes together on weekends and holidays.

Cindy Bierman, a special education teacher at Mitchell High School, has known Tayler since he was in third grade. But for the past four years, she’s had Tayler in her classroom, where she teaches math, English, social studies and transitions.

She has seen Cody and Tayler interact in school. Being in the same grade, the two are involved in many activities together. Bierman said she sees Cody watch Tayler to make sure he’s socially appropriate. And some students with special needs aren’t, she said, but Tayler is.

“Cody’s his role model,” she said.

Bierman said Tayler and her have a rivalry. Since she’s a Packers fan and Tayler is a huge Vikings fan, they often tease one another.

“I’ll give him a writing prompt, and he always wants something in there about the Vikings and the Packers,” she said.

What also surprises Bierman is that she’s never seen Tayler mad.

“That’s not necessarily true of all Down syndrome kids,” she said. “That’s a testament to Brian and Ann, and that they raised him to be respectable and friendly.”

Wearing a Kernel-yellow cape on his shoulders and a crown on his head, Tayler looked across the Mitchell High School auditorium on Monday at his classmates, teachers and family.

The crowd was standing and cheering on Tayler, their newly elected homecoming king.

Tayler was one of five candidates for homecoming king. With a Dr. Seuss-related theme of “Oh, the Places You Can Go,” Tayler and the other candidates flipped over lollipops written with either “Thing 1” or “Thing 2.” Tayler’s lollipop, which had “Thing 1” written on the back, deemed him the winning candidate.

“We had hoped he had a good shot,” Ann said about Tayler winning. “But we didn’t know for sure. We were very excited.”

Harley Wittstruck, another student who has a disability, won homecoming queen. Standing beside Tayler, the entire auditorium cheered on their newly elected royalty.

This enthusiasm, Bierman said, shows how respectful the Mitchell School student body is.

“And they say kids don’t care. I don’t see anybody bullying kids around here in Mitchell,” she said. “The student body here respects their differences and they make them feel welcome in the classes that they’re in.”

When Tayler was crowned king, Ann said she and the family were extremely happy and proud of all Tayler has done. But they give all of the credit to Tayler.

“Tayler’s personality goes a long way. He’s very social, he loves to be with people and he’s got true heart. He’s got true spirit,” she said. “People just truly love him.”

___

Information from: The Daily Republic, https://www.mitchellrepublic.com

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