How a student with autism inspired the Thomas Dale football team to an improbable win

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CHESTER, Va. -- At Thomas Dale High School in Chesterfield County, you won’t find a bigger Knights football fan than Cody Alley. Alley, who idolizes the players on the team, said he can't pick just one favorite player, he likes them all. Alley wanted to be more than a fan. He yearned to suit up for the team himself, but living with autism has stymied that dream.

"I wanted to play football, but I don’t have any muscles on me," he laughed.

Cody Alley, 18, is a senior at Thomas Dale High School

Cody Alley, 18, is a senior at Thomas Dale High School

Last summer his mother, Laurie, hatched an idea. She asked the coaches if Cody could help the team in anyway. What happened next would change the 18-year-old high school student's life – forever.

"It was a surprise and I was happy for Cody because I wanted to make his senior year a memorable one for him," Laurie said.

Cody would walk in to an opportunity of a lifetime. He would become a manager of the Knights during his senior year.

"Yes, I was nervous," Cody said. "I thought I wasn’t going to get any respect from the players and stuff."

The question of whether Cody would be welcomed by the bulky linebackers and swift running backs was answered before the first whistle of the season.

"Cody will always be in my heart and always be in my mind. I love that kid to death. He is like a brother to me," junior Sammy Stark said.

Eric Finney (left), Cody Alley, Marco Carrabotta and, Sammy Stark

Eric Finney (left), Cody Alley, Marco Carrabotta and, Sammy Stark

Cody kept his teammates hydrated on the sidelines and during timeouts.

"He let us know. He loved us and we loved him," senior linebacker Marco Carrabotta said. "He couldn’t play, but the fact that he was on the sidelines made it feel like he was just another teammate."

"It was very exciting for me," Cody said about his dream job. "Every time I walk by they say my name and give me high fives and stuff."

To Coach Kevin Tucker and the players, it mattered little that Cody did not wear pads or throw a pass.

"He was just as important as the starting quarterback and starting running back. Whoever it was. He was one of them," Coach Tucker said.

Cody working out at the school gym

Cody working out at the school gym

Cody’s most memorable moment would come during halftime of a pivotal playoff game on November 14. A lifeless Thomas Dale was trailing 21-7.

"The mood in the room was a little down. Not everyone knows what to do," Carrabotta said.

But Cody did. In a fiery speech that would make legendary NFL coach Knute Rockne proud, Cody challenged his teammates to play better and not get embarrassed on the field.

"We see him so amped up, we just want to play for him," Stark said.

In an improbable achievement, Thomas Dale roared back and won in triple overtime.

"Somehow it helped them. I thought we weren’t going to win this game, but somehow a miracle happened. We just won the game. We just never gave up. We just won the game," Cody said. "Then after that game they kept saying, ‘That was for you Cody’. That made me feel special."

His contribution that fall night solidified his place on a team.

"It just really helped me to be a part of the team and know who I really am," Cody said. "So, I won’t be left alone with no friends and stuff. It gives me self-respect."

Once Cody graduates in the spring he is hoping to attend Woodrow Wilson Rehabilitation Center in Fishersville, Virginia. The center provides students living with disabilities vocational training and helps them realize personal independence through employment.

Coach Kevin Tucker has invited Cody back to assist him on the sidelines next season. Cody has already taken him up on the offer.

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