TROY — Amber Robinson has spent much of the past 18 years looking for a sign.
A sign her son would be accepted.
A sign he would be treated just the same as his peers.
A sign her son, Derrec Sandifer, had found his place in the world.
Early this fall, Robinson got the sign she was looking for — in the most literal way possible.
“A big moment for me was when I walked into the stadium earlier this year and saw Derrec’s senior banner hanging in the stadium with the other seniors,” Robinson said. “The possibility of that happening was something I wrote off a long time ago. That was a real special moment for me.”
It’s been a fall filled with special moments for Robinson, her son and the Troy football team, which has turned around a 2-8 season from a year ago and will take a 10-1 record into Friday’s Division II regional semifinal playoff game against Miamisburg.
Sandifer, who was diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder at the age of 3, has been with the Trojans every step of the way this season.
“Friends,” Sandifer said with a smile as he helped clean trays recently while working in the Troy High School cafeteria during lunch. Sandifer, a senior at Troy, has been mostly non-verbal his entire life, one of the effects of him being on the autism spectrum. “Will. Hayden. Marc. Matt. Friends.”
While Sandifer has yet to play a single minute of a Troy football game this season, he has been fully embraced by the members of the team, including linebacker Will Brumfield, quarterback Hayden Kotwica, running back Marc Scordia and linebacker Matt Sanders.
He’s officially listed as a kicker on the team roster — Kotwica said he’s seen Sandifer hit a 30-yard field goal in practice — and attends practices and team meals. He suits up in his full uniform for home games and wears his jersey to away games, standing on the sidelines and cheering on the Trojans with unbridled enthusiasm.
He walks up and down the sidelines during games, tapping his teammates on the shoulder and, when they turn around, greeting them with a first bump and an incandescent smile.
“It’s just a good vibe he gives off,” said Kotwica, the Trojans’ record-setting quarterback and the Greater Western Ohio Conference American North Division Offensive Player of the Year. “He’s always giving off a positive vibe. If you are having a bad day, he’s the kid you want to go see. I consider him a lifelong friend.”
Robinson has spent much of her son’s life wondering if he would be accepted by his classmates. His limited verbal skills, along with his difficulty interacting in many social situations — another effect of the neurodevelopmental disorder — sometimes made it hard for Sandifer to find and keep friends as he was growing up and advancing through school.
“As he got older, it was hard for him to find interactions that would match up for him,” Robinson said. “It was hard for him, and it was hard for me. That’s not easy to see. Then Will came along and opened up all kinds of doors for him.”
That would be Will Brumfield, starting outside linebacker, team captain and one of the top scholars on the team. The affable Brumfield moved to Troy from Louisville, Ky., in the seventh grade and said when he started at Troy Junior High School, he felt out of place as the new kid in town.
Sandifer was one of the first friends he made after moving to Troy.
“Derrec was in my gym class and one of the first kids at Troy I really talked to,” Brumfield said. “Our friendship just spawned from there, and he’s become one of my better friends. I don’t think he knows how much he’s helped me be a better person and how much he’s meant to me in my life. He’s been such a huge improvement in my life.
“When I met him, I could tell he was a little different from most kids, but that didn’t change anything for me. He’s just a nice guy. That’s what I care about. He’s just got an infectious attitude. It’s hard not to like Derrec.”
While Sandifer would eventually become friends with all the members of the football team — who would help him assimilate and make friends with the rest of Troy’s senior class throughout the years — he remained on the outside looking in on their world on Friday nights in the fall.
Sandifer loved playing sports — soccer has always been his favorite sport and he’s participated on a number of Miami County’s Special Olympics teams — but his family never figured he’d get the chance to be on the football team. He was content with being the Trojans’ No. 1 fan — until Troy coach Matt Burgbacher approached him after a game last year.
“Last year, he would stand outside the locker room after games and wait for every player to come out,” Robinson said. “I mean every single player. He would wait there and give them all first bumps after the game. He had to give every one of them a fist bump or else he wouldn’t leave.
“After one game, Matt saw him standing there and came up and started talking to him. He told him he wanted him to have a place on the team this year. He let him come in the locker room and helped him pick out a jersey number. He’s the one who put Derrec on the team and let him be a part of this. I can’t say enough good things about the man and what he’s done for my son. It’s absolutely been an incredible experience for Derrec.”
As much Robinson said Burgbacher and his players have given to her son, however, Burgbacher said they’ve received just as much back in return.
“We are lucky to have Derrec around this team,” said Burgbacher, who also is an intervention specialist at Troy High School. “He’s just such a positive influence on these kids. Plus, I think he’s teaching these kids a lot about what it truly means to be a part of a team and accepting everyone on a team.
“Those are important life lessons to learn. Those are the types of things you can take with you long after your football career is over. People may or may not remember what kind of football player you were in high school, but they are always going to remember what kind of person you were and how you treated other people.”
The friendships Sandifer has formed this year have carried well beyond the gridiron as well.
Before every game, Sandifer’s teammates help him put on his uniform, stretching his scarlet No. 19 jersey over his shoulder pads and making sure the chinstrap on his helmet is fastened. During games, he’s usually the first to greet his teammates as they come off the field following a play. After the games, they make sure he’s included in the postgame revelry.
“I don’t have to worry about him at all when he’s with them,” Robinson said. “A lot of times, I’ll ask them where they are going after games and they’ll say, ‘Don’t worry. We’ll take him with us.’ And they do. They take him with them wherever they go. It’s been such an amazing experience. It’s spread to his other classmates, too. It’s just so heartwarming to see the way all of his classmates have embraced him.”
As he loaded trays into the dishwasher one recent afternoon, Sandifer couldn’t help but flash his megawatt smile when talking about football.
“A bunch,” Sandifer said when asked how much he liked being on the Troy football team. “Happy.”
Brumfield said Sandifer is a constant source of inspiration for him and the rest of the team.
“He’s the most honest and true person I’ve ever been around,” Brumfield said. “He just needed a chance. All he wants is to be treated like everyone else — which is exactly what he is.”
The signs of that are everywhere.
Contact David Fong at firstname.lastname@example.org; follow him on Twitter @thefong