CHINOOK -- At first glance you wouldn’t know that Chinook senior Josh Gillett is any different than his Sugarbeeter teammates.
He loves football, he loves his school and he loves his hometown. He lives for Friday nights at Hoon Field.
And he gives maximum effort every time he steps on the field.
“I mean, he just brings that energy,” Chinook coach Mike Jones said. “He's a pretty physical kid and pretty fast. He never misses a day in the summer and hits the weights. He’s just willing to do whatever we want as a team. It doesn't matter if it's scout team, defense, offense - whatever he can do, he does.”
Gillett plays mostly special teams, but he gets in on some offensive and defensive sets, as well. The first thing you notice is his speed. He can fly down the field.
“I would say defense is my favorite part,” Josh laughed. “Being on offense is really fun, too. But nothing is better than hitting the quarterback and just getting someone on the ground. So that's the fun part for me.”
Coaches and classmates saw his potential while he competed in junior high track and field and encouraged him to give football a try in high school.
And the second he put on the pads and jersey, he was instantly hooked on Chinook football.
“I just love everything about it,” he said.
But Josh’s path to the field was not without its challenges.
He’s on the autism spectrum. The disorder affects everyone differently, but Josh’s autism is characterized by problems with communication, memory, and sensory overload.
Loud and chaotic environments cause him anxiety, so naturally football wasn’t something his parents – Deserae and Robert Kelley – ever saw in his future.
“We were nervous,” admitted Robert. “Football teams are a fine machine. You have to learn the plays, you have to know which direction you're going, you have to do it quick and make quick decisions.”
The first couple of months of high school football were hard for Josh. He had a hard time grasping plays and remembering his assignments without constant repetition.
“Being the freshman was pretty tough, learning all this stuff with my first year of football and all that,” Josh explained. “So it was just all about figuring out how I can get the rhythm going on, how I can fix things and be fluent in football as best I could.”
And when he made a mistake on the field, he would get frustrated and very down on himself.
“If the boys on the field are yelling one thing and their coaches are yelling something else, it kind of rattles him,” Robert said. “And then when he makes a mistake, he feels like the whole world stops because he made that one mistake. And I said, ‘Buddy, guys in the NFL make millions and they make mistakes. It's OK. Your team's still patting you on the back.’”
Josh’s teammates are his saving grace and the reason he's stuck with football all four years. He is one of four seniors on Chinook, along with JT Hauer, Sam Dumas, and Kurtis Hamilton. Their bond transcends football.
“The kids have known (about Josh’s autism) for a long time, so they help him whenever they can,” Jones said. “If it's in the huddle, if it's in scout, they're there letting him know where to go, what to do. And if they have any questions, they ask me or they ask him and we're good to go.”
When Josh gets lost on the field, his teammates will literally move him to the spot he is supposed to be in. They make sure he knows what his role is on each play.
They've gone above and beyond to not only play their own positions but to make sure Josh is in his position. They cheer him on and don't get tired of answering Josh’s questions.
“Everybody has the tools to succeed,” Hauer said. “And with Josh he just needs that little extra help, and I've always been more than happy to help lend that hand and make sure he's where he needs to be to succeed.”
Josh appreciates the assists on the field.
“They kind of just tell me like, ‘You got to do this or do that,’ and stuff like that,” he said. “But if I'm out of position, they'll subtly like move me to the right side, just if I'm off a little bit. That's why I like these guys so much, because they're not complaining, they're not arguing about it. They're just good friends and helped me out with stuff.”
His teammates don’t view Josh as different, but rather as an important part of the team. Because that’s what he is.
“I feel it really shows how much of a tight-knit group we are,” Hauer said. “It really shows how much we've bonded together over the past four years. And I feel like it shows that we're always willing to help one of our teammates, one of our community members, one of our family.”
Football plays a central role in Josh’s life. It keeps him focused, it keeps him grounded, and it helps him navigate a world that’s not always welcoming or accessible to individuals with autism.
“I didn't really have much friends at the start of this,” Josh said. “That's why throughout the four years here I really formed all bonds, all these guys are my friends. I mean, they all helped me out whenever I needed it. They're really good guys.”
And it’s a two-way street. Josh’s attitude and effort inspire and encourage the rest of the Sugarbeeters, as well.
“It proves how hard of a worker he is. I like to think of myself as hard worker, but I will admit that nobody on that field works harder than Josh,” Hauer said. “He's constantly putting in the time, trying to get better, always asking questions to get better, and that's just something nobody can top.”
Proof that the only disability one can have in life is a bad attitude. And Josh will never have to worry about that.