The University of Arizona and Boston College will duke it out today in the AdvoCare V100 Bowl in Shreveport, Louisiana. Both teams had up and down seasons this year but finished 7-5 overall and pretty similar in their respective conference (BC 4-4 in the ACC, U of A 4-5 in the PAC-12).
While the Wildcats play their bowl game today, there is one young man who has overcome many obstacles. Diagnosed at birth with Autism, a developmental disorder, Jesse Ortiz defied odds in 2009 by becoming the starting kicker for Centennial High School in Peoria, AZ. After graduation, Ortiz earned a roster spot as a walk-on at the University of Arizona the following fall. Living his dream to play Division 1 football, Ortiz played under former Wildcat coach Mike Stoops for two seasons while at the university.
“God bless Coach Stoops because he honestly has been one of the influences that has been guiding me to a better lifestyle and is really a strong leader,” Ortiz told The Source.
After the Wildcats started the 2011 season losing five of their six games, and their first four games in the newly expanded Pac-12 Conference, Stoops was fired in October 2011. Arizona hired former Michigan coach, Rich Rodriguez the following month. “When the new coaching staff came to the Wildcats, I figured I could make a name for myself and just really show off that hard work,” said Ortiz.
“Really dedicate myself—just really show off my hard work and really just start out fresh and clean.”
No such luck.
According to Ortiz, after summer team workouts ended and the fall season was set to begin last season, the team equipment manager called him and asked him to come get his belongings from the team locker room. “When I show up to the locker room, my name isn’t there and my stuff is in a black trash bag,” he said.
Ortiz also said that there was no explanation given to him by the coaching staff. “I never heard anything from a single coach,”said Ortiz. “I had been too embarrassed to approach any of them. If you had your stuff put in a trash bag and not have the decency or courtesy to acknowledge. I just feel like, if I just go out and reach out to them I’m going to seem desperate and seem not worth their time.”
E-mails and phone calls to the University of Arizona were not returned to The Source. According to a statement provided to KVOA TV-4 in Tuscon, AZ in July 2013, Ortiz was informed:
“The University and Department of Intercollegiate Athletics take all allegations of discrimination extremely seriously, and we are following our standard procedures in addressing and responding to this type of complaint. While federal law, which protects students’ privacy, prevents University officials from discussing any details regarding this matter, the University can state that Coach Rodriguez evaluates and meets with each player every spring to discuss that player’s status with the team, and players are evaluated on the extent to which they can contribute to a Division i program and the success of the University’s football team.”
Margaret Ortiz, Jesse’s mom told The Source that she visited U of A to meet Rich Rodriguez after he was hired and held a meet and greet with parents of the student athletes. She asked the coach if he knew Jesse’s story. “He told me what a great kid Jesse was, we really love him and I called Jesse and said I was pretty certain that everything is okay,” she said.
After the meeting, Margaret relayed the news to her son. “Jesse said to me that’s funny-I haven’t even met him,” she said “Right out of the gate Richard Rodriguez was very dishonest with me. I really believe that Jesse was treated unfairly and I can only imagine that it was based upon his disability.”
Margaret Ortiz reached out to Coach Rodriguez via e-mail. According to Ortiz, the coach didn’t reply. She provided her email to The Source.
Here’s an excerpt from the e-mail:
“The pain of the rejection is something we are helping him process. He feels like he did something wrong…nothing could be farther from the truth. We are encouraging him to get involved in other activities, and eventually he will. And so I thank you for being the one who opened my eyes. I wish I had known sooner that the possibility of being released from the team existed…”
Maylin Rodriguez, a Child Study Team Learning Consultant in Saddle Brook, NJ is disheartened by the outcome of Jesse’s football playing days. Unfortunately alleged discrimination cases are far too common.“You do see things like this in organized sports and extracurricular activities. I encourage kids of all levels to try their best regardless of their disability, I don’t think we should focus not so much on the disability but their ability to be able to perform the task.”
The year of 2013 has been a year of advancement for individuals with autism. According to Autism speaks, the US’s best known Autism advocate organization, this year brought signs of a gratifying maturation in autism research. Autism Awareness’ annual top 10 stories featured remarkable testimonials like Scottish singer Susan Boyle revealing her Autism diagnosis. Additionally, Anthony Starego, a placekicker from Brick Township High School in New Jersey won an unprecedented fifth year of eligibility and became the first varsity football player in the U.S. with autism to play in a championship game.
Although Jesse is not on that list, he’s certainly worth an honorable mention. “I think Jesse is an inspiration to all children with disabilities,” said Maylin Rodriguez.
Despite being cut from the Wildcats team last season, Jesse is still persevering. He’s enrolled full time at U of A in their Education program and graduates August 2014 with a degree in Education. He plans on becoming a special education preschool teacher after graduating.
-Brandon Robinson ( @ScoopB )