Football: Newport's Brent Spurgeon pushes aside his Asperger's on the gridiron
By JOEL WILLITS
Bellevue Reporter Former Sports Writer
October 23, 2009 · Updated 9:58 AM
When Newport freshman football player Brent Spurgeon looks into the stands, he sees many people pulling for him.
He sees his mom, Catherine Spurgeon. Most games he sees Mira, his sister, seated right next to her.
He sees Debbie Altomare - or Mrs. Deb, as he calls her - his tutor, sitting there as well. Next to her is her husband, Ralph. And next to him is the Altomare's youngest son David, Brent's friend, coach and personal trainer.
When Brent Spurgeon looks into the stands, he sees an entire set of family cheering for him.
The only person he doesn't see, well, that person is the reason he plays.
But this story isn't about sadness, though it certainly has its fill. This story is about one person stepping outside their comfort zone to take on a new challenge - and a friendship that has bloomed because of it.
When Brent Spurgeon decided to play football this year, it caught Catherine by surprise. Brent hadn't shown any prior interest in playing football, she said, and hardly any in other sports - he'd played a bit of tennis before, but that was about it.
"I figured he'd join a club or something," Catherine said. "But the only thing he was interested in was football."
So on Sept. 9, Brent suited up for his first game with the Newport freshman football team - exactly 10 years to the day that he was diagnosed with Asperger's syndrome.
Asperger's is an autism spectrum disorder. Those diagnosed with it, like Brent, show significant difficulties in social settings. Catherine describes it as 'missing a sense' - the social sense.
"Most just automatically know how to interact with other people," she said. "Brent really lacks social skills - he does not know how to interact with his peers. People with Asperger's have to be taught what others know inclusively."
As a result, Brent's often had trouble getting along with his peers, she said. But since Brent was diagnosed early enough, he's always been mainstreamed through school, with the help of an aide.
That's where the Altomare's come in.
A second family
Catherine and her husband, Stan, were looking for an aide and after-school tutor to help Brent when they found Debbie Altomare.
They hit the jackpot.
Debbie was certified to be an elementary school teacher, but had no experience working with children with Asperger's.
"I threw all this reading material at her," Catherine said, "and she read it all. She has a gift."
It was quickly apparent the Spurgeon's had struck gold. Not only did Brent become her student, he became a part of the Altomare family.
"He's like another one of my kids," Debbie said.
Debbie has plenty of experience with boys - she has three of them, including David, who all graduated from and played football at Bellevue High School. David, the youngest, graduated in 2008, winning a state title with the Wolverines in his senior year.
"When we were younger, I just saw Brent as my mom's student," David said. "As the years went on, he started to feel like a little brother to me."
A friendship was blooming.
Three years ago, Catherine was diagnosed with stage-three breast cancer. A year of chemotherapy and radiation lay ahead.
The Altomare's were there. Debbie would pick up Brent and Mira from school, get them doing their homework, helping any way she could.
Catherine beat the cancer. All was well.
Then, in August of 2007, Stan went to the doctor. He'd been acting abnormal, Catherine said, and the family was worried.
The doctors found a massive brain tumor.
"Hell is the only way to describe it," Catherine said. "Stan was in and out of the hospital. We thought at first that we might be able to get him back, because I had beaten cancer. We slowly came to the realization that he wasn't coming back."
The Altomare's were there again.
The cats were fed. The kids were picked up from school. When Catherine couldn't be at the hospital, Debbie was there with Stan.
"Whenever I got overwhelmed," Catherine said, "Debbie always seemed to be there."
Stan fought for over a year. He passed on Sept. 6, 2008.
A friendship through football
David Altomare began working out with Brent in the spring of his senior year. Brent was getting ready to transition from life at Tyee Middle School, to Newport High. He had no inkling of what Brent was about to take on.
On Newport's annual fall sports signup night, Brent went straight to the football table.
"Several other kids I knew at Tyee were starting football, so I decided to do that too," Brent said, pausing slightly to take in the questions before answering. "Just to prove to them that I could do it."
But there was another reason. Stan Spurgeon was a high school football player. He'd often watch games on TV with Brent when he was younger. Catherine would often tell the story of Stan's reaction to finding out Brent was a 10-pound, 7-ounce baby.
"Alright!," he would proclaim. "Football scholarship!"
So Brent chose football, for his dad.
"It's a way to honor him," he said.
David immediately took Brent under his wing and started preparing him for life on the gridiron.
"The first thing we did was get him conditioned," David said. "Brent was not the running type."
The two would spend hours running, lifting weights, and even watching video. Brent chose to play defensive line because, in his words, he likes "tackling, getting to rip under, pick 'em up and put 'em down."
"He's like a sponge," David said. "Everything I teach him, he soaks it in. I really think he can be an impact player for Newport."
"David's a good coach," Brent said. "When he says he's going to work you, he works you hard."
It wasn't just about the physical training. David told Brent about being a good teammate, having a positive attitude, and working with those around him.
"I like teaching Brent new things, I like telling him about my day and I like asking him about his day," he says. "Everything Brent goes through, I want to be there to make sure he perseveres. I love being around him."
The training has brought the two even closer, Catherine said, and it's something that's been great for Brent.
"I think it's David's influence more than anything which really inspired Brent to play football,"Catherine said. "It's really bloomed into a beautiful friendship. Brent totally worships him."
Wednesday night lights
It's Wednesday night, game night for the freshman Knights, and it's being played under the lights at Sammamish High School, as the Knights take on the Totems.
Catherine, Debbie, Ralph and David are all in the stands, watching as Brent cheers on his teammates and steals occasional peeks at the stands.
Things haven't been too difficult for Brent, said Newport freshman coach Michael Dotson.
"If you were looking at our football practice, Brent is right in the thick of things with everyone else," he said. "You cannot tell any difference between him and the other kids."
It was the other kids that had Catherine worried most. With such a social sport that requires the highest level of teamwork, she had visions of struggles in her head.
No worrying necessary.
"The kids have been great with him," she said. "I was thinking this was going to be a disaster. Instead, it's proven the opposite."
Which Dotson echos.
"The other kids are not intimidated by his Asperger's," he said. "They treat him like any other player."
In the waning minutes of the fourth quarter, a chant starts on the sidelines. It starts as a slow buzz, gains traction, and comes to a crescendo as big No. 99 runs onto the field.
"Brent, Brent, Brent, Brent," comes the cheer from the sidelines. In the stands, Debbie and Ralph smile. David sits forward, ready to critique Brent's technique and store away places for improvement. Catherine reaches for the Kleenex that she always forgets.
Brent bursts out of his defensive line stance each snap, displaying the strength David has raved about. He hustles towards the ball carrier each play. The greatest compliment to the first-year player, is that he looks like any other player on the field.
He's a football player.
"The best thing about Brent is that he has so much potential," David says. "Obviously, that's unfolding in front of us right now."