Westview players gather as Owen Godfrey takes a shot from the free-throw line.
Owen Godfrey has a routine.
Every practice, the 6-foot-5 senior grabs a basketball, approaches the 3-point line inside Westview High’s gymnasium and offers a brief demonstration. Hoisting the basketball above his head, Godfrey aims at the hoop and shoots.
Cheers ensue. High-fives follow.
“That signifies the end of our day,” Westview coach Kyle Smith said. “He joins our huddle, we break and then officially end practice.”
That’s the rule.
The Wolverines, who have compiled a 16-7 record, can’t leave until the team manager sinks a basket. Godfrey has other duties like organizing equipment and placing cones on the floor for drills, but hitting the last shot of practice has been his most important responsibility since joining the team this season.
Godfrey, 17, who has autism, takes his obligation seriously because the team depends on him. And because it’s his opportunity to do what he loves for the team that draws inspiration from a kid committed to practicing and improving his skills.
“He isn’t able to do everything that we as players are able to and isn’t able to think as we do, yet it doesn’t stop him,” said senior forward Andrew McWilliam.
“When we see Owen shooting, it makes us want to work even harder and practice harder because we can play for Westview.”
Smith met Godfrey 18 months ago when Godfrey transferred to Westview from a school he was attending in New York. That’s when the friendship was formed.
Initially, Godfrey and Smith would shoot basketballs during physical education class and other times when Godfrey appeared to feel overwhelmed. However, the sessions developed into something more.
“Coach Smith called me and said he would really like to get Owen involved into our basketball program somehow,” said Nicola Bridges, Godfrey’s mother.
“But if we were to do this, I would have to come to every practice. I was blown away by the gesture. I couldn’t believe it. I told him I would give this a try.”
And she did despite initial worries about her son’s autism, a condition that can include a range of disorders affecting brain development and communication skills.
“He is pretty much non-verbal,” Bridges said.
“There are moments where I believe he is sort of trapped inside his own head. There are times when he can’t tell us what he really wants to say. It might result in shouting or jumping around. I needed to be there.”
Player reactions never concerned her.
“I wasn’t worried about the way they would treat Owen,” she said. “The Westview community has treated him and others with respect and care. I didn’t think anybody would make fun of him.”
For most practices, Bridges sat holed up in the corner like a fly on the wall, hoping she wouldn’t be a distraction. It lasted for about two weeks. Smith told Bridges her son would be in good hands, and she no longer felt it necessary to attend workouts.
“It’s awesome having him at practice,” McWilliam said. “He’s a great shooter. If someone gets yelled at, he’ll start laughing and we all will just start laughing. He keeps the mood of practice light.”
Light and enjoyable.
“He doesn’t have the ability to tell you how he is feeling, but we can tell by his laughter, his smiles, his body language that he loves it,” Smith said.
“He loves being around our guys and involved with our team, shooting free throws and shooting with the guys and they love being around him.”
His routine has served him well. Godfrey blows away the competition at home games when participating in the halftime free-throw shooting contest.
“You don’t want to go against him,” Smith said.
Added Bridges: “This has changed Owen’s life phenomenally in so many ways. Outside of school, they don’t have a lot of friends. So, for Owen to be a part of this team and family, it means everything to me.”