For two consecutive years, the most beloved member of the Hobbton (N.C.) High football team was Brett Bowden, a student with Down Syndrome who would suit up and cheer during every varsity game, eventually earning the right to lead the team onto the field and run a touchdown play after every game. He even scored one official touchdown in a game.
In other words, Bowden was everyone's favorite player, even though he rarely ever played. Yet Bowden's place on the varsity sideline was also a weekly rite of passage that meant just as much to the teenager and his family as it did to his teammates.
Suddenly, all of that was taken away from the teenager in August, when he and his family learned he wouldn't be able to officially be a part of the Hobbton team for his senior year for a very simple yet rigid reason: He's now too old.
According to Greenville ABC affiliate WWAY-TV3, WRAL.com partner HighSchoolOT and other sources, Bowden recently turned 19, an age which the North Carolina High School Athletic Association deems too old to participate in high school sports. While the organization has reached out to express "understanding" about how Bowden's situation has left members of the Hobbton community heartbroken, it also insisted that nothing could be done to circumvent the NCHSAA age regulations.
"Brett don't see that he has Down Syndrome," Bowden's mother, Pat Bowden, told WWAY. "Brett wants just to be one of those guys, out there dressed, thinking that he is a football player, feeling like he's a football player."
In an effort to clarify its official position, North Carolina High School Athletic Association Commissioner Davis Whitfield released a statement about Bowden's varsity eligibility on Wednesday.
"I want to be clear that the student-athlete has not been 'kicked off the team,'" Whitfield said in the statement, which he emailed to Prep Rally directly. "Brett Bowden could still be a part of the team, lead his team on the field, wear his jersey and be with his teammates, including some of the post-game activities he has done in the past.
"The only thing that he cannot do now that he could do before is dress out in full uniform, since a student must be eligible to be dressed for a contest. He is over the age limit based on the eligibility rules, and this State Board of Education policy is one we are not allowed to set aside."
The Hobbton community clearly doesn't think the NCHSAA's decision is acceptable, and it has the Facebook posts to prove it is not alone. After learning of Bowden's ineligibility, the teen's younger sister, Taylor Bowden, set up a Facebook page last Friday entitled "Let Brett Bowden Play." After a handful of photos of Bowden in action and an explanation of why Bowden should be able to remain a member of the Wildcat team was posted, the page took off. As of Tuesday night, nearly 6,200 Facebook members had "liked" the page, with hundreds leaving their feelings about the NCHSAA ruling in posts on the page's wall.
The Facebook drive's popularity hasn't been a surprise to Taylor, who said that the community has always rallied around her brother.
"The whole community loves Brett," Taylor Bowden told WWAY. "Eveyone comes to the football games to watch him. When he goes out there and warms up it's the best time."
Another of Bowden's teammates called the senior his inspiration, saying that every time Bowden leads the Wildcats onto the field he's driven to play as hard as possible to do Bowden proud.
Whether he ever gets the chance to feel that way again is now in the hands of a state organization which will have to decide whether bending the rules for one clearly worthwhile cause is acceptable, or whether doing so would open the door to more problems for other North Carolina schools going forward.
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