Glacier JV helps make special memory for autistic player

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Patrick Fuglei crosses the goal line for a touchdown.

A 50-yard run for a touchdown was a golden moment 17-year-old Patrick Fuglei won’t ever forget. Neither will his teammates and opposing players.

It was the last junior varsity football game of the season for Patrick, a junior at Missoula Big Sky High School, as the team went against the Glacier High Wolfpack last Friday in Missoula.

He is autistic and rarely sees any real playing time, according to his mother, Bridget Byrnes.

“When asked what position he plays, he half-jokingly responds ‘left out,’ but that doesn’t matter to him,” she said. “He just wants to feel like a regular kid and football offers him that.”

Mitch Collier, one of the Big Sky JV coaches, said he and the other coaches try to work Patrick into a play or two during most games, and had the perfect opportunity to take it one step further during the game with Glacier.

Glacier had a comfortable lead over Big Sky in the fourth quarter, so Collier and fellow coach Jeff Heath pulled the officials aside and filled them in on their plan to allow Patrick to run the field and score. The officials, in turn, notified Glacier coaches Tracy Moon and Kyle Kercher so the Glacier players could help carry out the play.

“In that situation, you don’t want to have the players go full out,” Collier said.

It was an act of kindness that absolutely floored Patrick’s mother.

“I am still at a loss for words as to what happened just before the game ended,” Byrnes said. “I couldn’t believe it when I heard our coach call Patrick’s name, then send him in as a running back. On the next play my son scored on a 50-yard run down the middle — untouched.

“There was a lot of diving and missed tackles. I obviously figured out that the coaches from both sides had conferred during a time out,” she said.

“After the game I went over to the Glacier team to express my gratitude and the boys were so sweet. They clapped, shook my hand and gave me hugs. One player even came up and told he that he was honored to do that for my son.”

Byrnes praised the players on both teams.

“What they did for my son epitomizes good sportsmanship,” she said.

Collier said it was a good experience for both teams.

“Patrick was really excited about it,” he said. “He got a lot of satisfaction out of it.”

Participating in team sports hasn’t been easy for Patrick, but it’s something he dearly loves, his mother said. It’s important for her son to feel like he’s a part of the team.

During his sophomore year we went out for football, hockey and rugby.

“He loves team sports,” Byrnes said, adding that early on she encouraged him to try individual sports like tennis, but to no avail.

“We’ve been blessed with these very understanding coaches,” she said.

School has likewise presented a challenge for her autistic son. His elementary school years passed by pretty well, but during middle school he was bullied and taunted to the point where his parents pulled him out of school and enrolled him in a small private school for children with autism in Scottsdale, Ariz.

Byrnes accompanied her son to Arizona and they spent two years there. But the whole time he talked about going back to Missoula and attending Big Sky.

“He went from 1,200 to 30 kids,” she recalled about the switch to the autism school. “He was under the microscope and he didn’t like it.”

In the end, Big Sky was “very welcoming,” she said, with a wonderful program for special-needs students.

“He’s had a great experience. There are para-educators with him all the time.”

And now, thanks to his teammates and the Glacier players, he’s had a great — and unforgettable — experience on the football field, too, Byrnes said.

She wrote to the Inter Lake, expressing her gratitude: “I would like to extend my compliments and highest praise to the parents and coaches of the boys on the Glacier JV football team. They are a quality group of young men.”

Features editor Lynnette Hintze may be reached at 758-4421 or by email at lhintze@dailyinterlake.com.

 

Fuglei (43) takes off down the field on a 50-yard touchdown run on Friday during a junior varsity football game in Missoula.

 

In front of a gathering of Glacier Wolfpack players, Bridget Byrnes hugs Glacier JV coach Kyle Kercher after her son’s touchdown run. At right is coach Tracy Moon.

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