The video of 15-year-old Matt Ziesel scoring a touchdown in September for Benton High School in St. Joseph, Missouri, has become a YouTube sensation, with more than 570,000 viewers.
Ziesel was born with Down syndrome, which was caused in him when a cell division created three rather than two No. 21 chromosomes. Affecting 350,000 Americans, Down syndrome is a leading cause of intellectual disability.
Said father Mike Ziesel in a telephone interview: “After learning Matt had Down syndrome (at birth), my wife and I weren’t devastated, but we were unsure how to handle it. We thought about what we could have done wrong to cause it. We didn’t have a clue because we didn’t have any prior experience with it.”
Eventually, his wife learned more, and soon, they decided to begin treating Matt as they would any of their other four children. Matt grew up in a sports-focused home and often tagged along to watch his siblings play. Back then a football and basketball coach, his father would become the athletic director for Benton High.
This last summer, 62-inch-tall, 110-pound Matt signed up for freshman football at Benton, passed his required physical, and began lifting weights, running, and drilling in uniform with the other players. He practiced playing wide receiver, defensive back, and running back.
“He was out there, but wasn’t having (physical) contact,” said Mike. “Our coaches were concerned about his safety and wouldn’t let anyone hit or tackle him. Our kids took him under their wing and made him feel part of the program. He’s the biggest cheerleader in northwest Missouri.”
On September 14, in a freshman game against Maryville, Benton was behind 46-0 with ten seconds left. Matt was badgering the coach to play. The opposing coach and players knew what would happen. Matt took the hand-off and the defense allowed him to sprint 63 yards for a touchdown.
“I’ve never seen him run so strong in my life,” said Mike.
In another lopsided gridiron contest weeks later, Matt, this time playing defensive back and with his usual infectious spirit, tackled a “cooperating” running back as time expired.
Said Ziesel: “Family, friends, and community have helped Matt get through life. I don’t even like to call what he has a disability. He doesn’t have the same intelligence level or physical abilities as many kids, but he has everything else.”