Like many young Westporters, Jackson Ruscitti loves playing soccer.
Unlike many, he has cerebral palsy.
That’s a challenge. As the physical gap with his peers grows, it’s hard for the 12-year-old to keep up with his able-bodied friends. (He does play in the Westport Soccer Association recreation league.) But programs for youngsters with developmental delays are not appropriate either.
Fortunately, there is also CP Soccer.
In the fall of 2017 Jackson’s mom Elizabeth heard of a non-profit. Its mission was to build a nationwide league for kids with cerebral palsy.
There are already 5 US teams, in New York, New Jersey, the Mid-Atlantic, South Florida and Houston. Another 4 to 6 teams are planned.
Jackson travels a couple of hours, to Clifton, New Jersey. But he’s learning new skills weekly. His teammates include a boy who plays for his high school freshman team, and another on the US Paralympic soccer squad.
Jackson also attended his first-ever sleepaway camp, at Clemson University. (Coincidentally, the head coach of the Tigers’ national Top 10 team is Staples High School 1979 graduate Mike Noonan).
Elizabeth calls that experience “life-changing.” Many of the youngsters had never spent time away from home — or met another child with the same disability. The environment was safe, fun and totally accepting. No one had to hide his arm, or try to disguise a limp.
But that was just the start. In March Jackson helped represent the US in the first-ever international tournament for kids with CP: the Friendship Cup in Dublin, Ireland.
A U-14 team of 17 kids was formed. They came from around the country, and played squads from Ireland, Scotland, Northern Ireland and England. They were accompanied by Kevin Hensley, a US Paralympic soccer team captain.
It was an amazing experience — and not just because the former strangers came together to ring up 3 wins, 3 ties and 3 losses.
Coach Ash Hammond, wrote down his thoughts after the trip. He tried to put into words what the tournament meant to him. He wondered:
Was it the training sessions on Wednesday and Thursday where everyone met for the first time and we all realized that we had a TEAM?
Was it the USA Flags everywhere, and realizing that you were representing your country, not just playing soccer?
Was it seeing one of the coolest signs EVER on the side of the field- “Soccer For ALL”
Was it the new friends we have made all over Ireland, England, Scotland and Northern Ireland?
Was it that the national team players back in the US kept posting “support messages” recognizing our young charges as the future of US CP Soccer?
Was it our crazy (GREAT) sibling cheering section?
Was it that we made history becoming the first US U-14 CP team ever to play a game, let alone an international game?
Then the coach offered a personal shout-out to the young Westporter:
Was it Jackson, who offered to go in goal when his team needed it and pulled off a magnificent save, along with his incredible effort in the field in the other games, or his crazy good split passing that we covet yet see so rarely in the youth game?
Then the coach revealed what really was his favorite part of the week.
It was all of those things and much more, but mostly it was the knowledge that we non-CP players, coaches and families were in the minority this weekend.
That the minority got to watch the majority, unabashed; perform, enjoy, revel, laugh, make friends, play, score, pass, tackle, dance, be recognized for their greatness, win, lose, tie, be happy, be upset, be exhausted and most of all seeing so many be among others like themselves for the first time.
Finally it was seeing our amazing children have a week like none other that they richly deserve, and giving US much joy along the way.
Jackson is already looking forward to his next camp at Clemson.
And 2 of his new mates from Ireland have signed up to go too.
(For more information, or to make a donation to support CP Soccer, click here.)