by Mary Ramsaier
One simple wave starting a rippling tsunami of happiness and love.
Life is about more than the final tally on the scoreboard, and the football team at Whitewater High School has the heart to be truly victorious.
At a recent game, one player, Matt Spreha, waved back to a young fan, Joshua Lester. Lester, who was born with Spina Bifida, wanted to run on the field and take a photo with the players, but his mother, Kristin, told him he couldn’t do that.
Kristin relayed the story to a friend, Becky Justice, who is the mother of football player Eli Kouns. Justice soon got head football coach Bryan Holley involved. Justice asked if the family could join the players for a pregame meal to take photos with the players, but Holley wanted to go the extra mile for Lester. Little did the Lesters know what Wildcat Nation had in store for Joshua.
During the Starr’s Mill game, Joshua Lester was a Wildcat VIP the entire night.
“We made him an honorary player for the day as he sat on the sidelines and gave him a jersey and ball signed from the game,” Holley said.
The players fist-bumped him and poured love on him the whole night.
“They all want to help and step up to show this kid what it is like to be a part of a team,” Justice said. “They went above and beyond for him.”
The community has always embraced the Lester family, including times where their dinner was by anonymous people. This nice notion was something truly special. The entire night was like a dream for the Lester family.
“There were several times we were fighting back the tears because we were so overwhelmed,” said Kristin.
Spina Bifida limits Joshua’s daily activities, but it can’t stop his smiling.
“He has been a true inspiration for most of us,” Spreha said. “It motivated us to be thankful for what we have and more appreciative of things.”
On his big day, Joshua was presented a football filled with the Wildcat signatures, but that was just the start. Whitewater’s Jamal Jenkins put the first six points up for the Wildcats. After his touchdown, he decided his first action of celebration needed to be a high five with Lester.
“I felt in my heart to make him happy and excited,” Jenkins said. “He made us even more excited and play with more energy for him.”
Word spread to the Wildcat cheerleading team. During the game, the ladies taught him dances and had him cheer with them in between quarters. The wave of love carried into the Whitewater student section in the stands. As Lester danced with the cheerleaders, they heard voices in the crowd cheering, “Let’s go, Joshua! Let’s go, Joshua!” Even the opposing team from Starr’s Mill was touched by the outpouring of love.
To top it off, Lester was named Wildcat of the Week by the team.
Joshua’s passion towards life impacted the Wildcats more than himself. Spreha said some might view his life as rough, but he lives it to fullest with his bravery throughout his medical problems.
“We have to experience these moments for him,” Spreha said. “Let’s go out there and do it for him. We wanted to show him what he can do for us.”
The love for the exceptional kids doesn’t stop with Lester.
The entire special education class from the school hit the practice fields after Lester’s debut. Students ran drills, caught balls, and learned chants during their practice. Each student left an even prouder Wildcat.
“I’ve never seen Whitewater put forth this much support,” Justice said. “Joshua has started something special at Whitewater.”
They even helped one particular player become the star of the game. Wildcat JV player Derek Baughan, a junior student with an intellectual disability, is a beloved member of the program, and they teamed up with Newnan High to do something really special. On the last play of the last JV game, they got the ball to Baughan, and he sprinted all the way for a touchdown. He was swarmed in celebration by both his teammates and players from Newnan.
Baughan’s teacher and the teacher of the class invited to practice, Tommy Collins, said the moment made him tearful because he knew how much it meant to Derrick. Collins noted that the team has truly accepted their fellow students.
Baughan’s play caught the eye of plenty of people. Channel 11 News featured him on one broadcast. It won’t be the end of football fun for him, either. Whitewater’s varsity players have already told Coach Holley he has a secured spot on varsity next year.
“This whole experience really opened my eyes,” Kouns said. “I can help out people even when I don’t think so.”
As for Lester, he said the Whitewater Wildcats are his favorite football team in the world — which is no surprise — but his favorite player out of all the Cats is No. 17, Spreha. Without Spreha’s impulse for kindness, none of this would have ever happened.
“My favorite part was hanging with the players,” Lester said. “Spreha was kicking the ball at us [into the practice net], and I jumped.”
When the Lesters traveled home after the game, they all were still high on Cloud Nine. They questioned how they were going to repay the entire Whitewater community for their acts of kindness.
“Anytime we can express there is more to playing football and sports, we take advantage of that opportunity,” Holley said. “You’re blessed to be able to do that, especially for someone that isn’t so lucky to do that on a daily basis.”
The family was there again for Whitewater’s final home game against Fayette County. Throughout the entire the night, when his mother was distracted, Joshua tugged on her pants to bring her right to the spot on the sidelines where the players were.
After the game, the Wildcats kept up their tradition with Joshua — fist bumps. Among the many who stopped, Whitewater running back Isaiah Montgomery celebrated with his new friend.
“This opened up some eyes as we were playing for a bigger purpose than just Whitewater football,” Montgomery said. “We’re trying to impact other people’s lives through this game of football.”