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Freshman with Down Syndrome makes football team, scores preseason touchdown

Cameron Smith
Prep Rally

As Chattanooga (Tenn.) Hixson High head football coach Jason Fitzgerald told the Times Free Press, Austin Clark may have Down syndrome, but, "He's not coming out here for anything special, never wanted us to do anything special for him." In a twist, that may have made his touchdown during his team's preseason victory against Chattanooga (Tenn.) Grace Academy all the more special.

Clark runs every sprint, participates in every drill and shows up to every workout just like every other member of the Wildcats, because he is a member of the Wildcats -- a freshman running back and defensive lineman as he's listed on the team's roster.

"He comes to practice every day, and he comes ready to play," Hixson senior senior running back Isaiah Robinson, a preseason pick for District Player of the Year, told the Times Free Press. "He comes there ready to everything we do, and it doesn't matter. He just wants to be here and play. When I went home, it made me realize I need to be happy no matter what. I need to come give my best to the team just like he does."

Robinson and the rest of the Wildcats embraced Clark "just like my brother" from the moment he walked into the gym, and that means the world to Austin's parents.

"One of his sports loves is football, and he was very excited when he had the opportunity to come and be a part of Hixon High School football," his mother, Twonna Clark, told the Times Free Press. "I was a little worried about high school and how he's going to fit in and what's the reaction from other kids, but since Day 1 it's been amazing."

Clark isn't just a part of the team. He's an inspiration to each Hixson player and coach.

People get caught up too much in high school sports about who's going to get a scholarship, who's going to go where, but when you see him come out there and practice every day, that's why you're in it as a coach," added Fitzgerald. "You hope you can teach some players some lessons, but he also teaches me some lessons."

So much so that when his team took a 20-0 lead against crosstown rival Grace Academy in the Best of Preps jamboree over the weekend, the coach's seniors came to him and asked if Clark could get into the game. The coach obliged, calling a fourth-quarer timeout and conferring with Grace head coach Bob Ateca before inserting Clark on the final play.

Clark responded with a 65-yard touchdown run to cap a 27-0 win, earning the game ball.

"All the seniors wanted to be in there to block for Austin and watch out for him, but the Grace kids knew what was happening and they were great about it," the coach added. "You look at him over there, loving life and high-fiving everybody, and that's just a great memory."

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