he most valuable player on the undefeated Mustangs rarely plays.
Colton Bruce has scored one touchdown this season, just one. He wears a single black stripe for a number down the chest of his red fishnet jersey. It's not by chance that he dons No. 1. There’s never been a player quite like him to take the field in Mount Pleasant’s middle school football league. He’s the only one.
Lately, though, Bruce, as unique as he may be, doesn't feel so singular. He's a part of something. You can see it in the way his teammates embrace him. It’s clear in the way they protect him, the way they link together to form a barricade out ahead of him as he marches toward the end zone. You can see it in the celebration that ensues, Bruce leading the dance routine with the rest reeling in genuine joy.
Bruce’s one touchdown means something, something more than six points. It’s a sign of courage for both a kid and a town that’d never tried anything like this before. It’s a symbol of understanding and compassion for a team of players, barely teenagers, and the opposition too, all astute enough to recognize that there's something larger at play.
Bruce is certainly part of something, something special, something meaningful. And that’s all he’s ever really wanted, to be included. So in the moments of celebration in shadows of a dimly lit football field, as Bruce gyrates his hips in rhythm while his teammates whoop from somewhere in deep their bellies and cheer him on, you’re reminded that there's still something pure about this children's game that adults too often tend to take too seriously. You're reminded of what's actually important, the actual purpose of it all. It's not the wins or the championship trophies or the all-star nominations.
“It’s fun,” Bruce said. “I like to have fun.”
The Patriots trail by several scores in the final minute of the fourth quarter when head coach Edward Robinson signals for a timeout.
“Hey, Swish,” he calls to the opposite sideline. “You want to try the hula hoop?”
Mustangs head coach Chris Swisher spins around to find Bruce — his reserve running back, part-time water boy, part-time spirit leader — waiting with a wide grin sparkling through his face mask.
“Colton, let’s go, buddy,” Swisher prompts him. “You ready?”
Bruce nods back in way that convinces you, even without having ever met him before, that, yes, not only is he ready, he's been waiting his entire life for something like this.
The 13-year-old is a young man of few words but many talents. He’s a seventh-grader at Moultrie Middle School. He loves to entertain. He has an ear for music, skilled enough to play both the drums and guitar. He’s a fantastic swimmer. He can shoot an all right jump shot in basketball and can land a solid putt in golf. But his favorite hobby is rotating a hula hoop around his hips. He also happens to have Down syndrome.
“I think he realizes he’s a little different,” Bruce’s father, Keith, said. “It’s a bit frustrating for him sometimes. He’s at that age. He wants acceptance by typical kids. It means a lot to him.”
Bruce is trying football for the first time this fall. He’s well known within the local Unified Sports community, a Special Olympics initiative that offers athletes with intellectual disabilities opportunities to be included.
Swisher has a soft spot in his heart for the less included. He has a beautiful 7-year-old blonde-haired daughter named Lulu. Lulu suffers from a congenial ichthyosis, a rare skin disorder that’s treatable but still incurable. It’s what brought he and his family of six from Indiana to Charleston three years ago. The Lowcountry humidity is better for Lulu’s skin.
Lulu has a warm smile and a bubbly personality. Neither saves her from being bullied. She hasn’t really managed to fit into her new home yet. That, of course, bothers Swisher, because the businessman and longtime coach is oftentimes left feeling helpless. He has no mission statement, no game plan that can solve this scenario.
“It kills me,” he said.
Swisher sympathizes with Bruce’s longing for acceptance because he’s seen the pain of exclusion in the tear-filled eyes of his own daughter. He tries to protect Lulu from the cruelty of society as best he can. He wipes her tears time and again but fears it’ll always be a losing effort. Shielding his daughter from society probably isn’t the answer, he’s realized. A more macro approach makes better sense. Breaking down stigmas, and teaching acceptance and compassion at an early age — say, the age of his middle school football players — could have a more lasting, further reaching impact, he figures.
Swisher has spent years volunteering with the Special Olympics. He came up with the idea this fall to incorporate a few of the athletes into his youth football team. Bruce, already well known for his participation in the Unified Sports program, and with a personality as strong as his game, seemed to be a perfect candidate.
“We wanted to bring in an example of a bigger life lesson in a way the kids would understand,” Swisher said. “It’s perspective, it’s awareness, diversity, inclusion. We’re trying to help these kids see something more than themselves. We have a bigger responsibility than just winning football games. And I think it’s actually working.”
Bruce didn’t really know much about football outside of what he’d seen on television from his father’s beloved Gamecocks. Still, when his parents broached the idea, Bruce jumped at the opportunity with a succinct but resounding, “yes” before they could even finish explaining.
“And sometimes he’ll say yes to almost anything so we really weren’t sure how it would actually go,” Bruce’s mother, Sandy Wilkin explained. “As a mother, it was all a little scary. I mean, football?”
Bruce showed up early to the first practice wearing sunglasses with a Sunny Delight in hand. He stretched with the team, worked through the calisthenics, even set up in a three-point stance and hit the tackling dummy.
“Colton,” Swisher let out with a laugh as Bruce and the bag crashed to the ground. “My man, you hit like a linebacker.”
Bruce held his head a little higher, his chest poked out a little further, as he trotted to the back of the line, slapping the hands of his teammates along the way. No one had ever complimented him in that way.
“It’s the friendships, just the inclusion,” Wilkin said. “He's one of the boys. He feels like he belongs. That sense of unity means so much to him.”
Bruce has meant a lot to the Mustangs this season. He's been something of a good luck charm. The team is undefeated since he joined. Seven wins in a row. Regular-season champions.
Bruce is undoubtedly one of the most committed players on a team that takes youth football more serious than most. He’s never missed a practice, certainly not a game either. He’s never even been late. He’s too important to the team, he tells Sandy as she rushes to find his missing red knee-high socks that he absolutely cannot show up to the game without.
“Coach Chris needs me there,” he assures her.
Bruce bares many responsibilities. He sets up cones and dummies during pregame. He leads the team onto the field during introductions, whipping through the air a bright red flag with a mustang outlined in white — this may be his favorite part of it all, he admits.
Bruce fetches the kicking tee from midfield after each kickoff. Sometimes he even poses for photos and waves to the crowd as he trots off as if those in the stands are here for him. Some are. He hands out water during timeouts, and drinks plenty of it himself in between injecting encouragement, even a little advice into the huddle.
“I didn’t think the whole thing would work at first. I didn’t think he’d like it. I didn’t think he was what they were looking for,” Keith Bruce said. “But we wanted to get him involved in something a little tougher. We wanted him around some kids his age. Turns out, he loves it. This has really been an answer to a prayer.”
Keith Bruce has another son from a previous marriage who was born with a genetic disorder that doctors can’t quite define. He’s severely handicapped, still in diapers at 19 years old. Keith struggled for years with accepting his son’s differences. His anger consumed him at times.
“I was mad at God for a long time,” he admits with strain in his voice. “I was pretty bad off for a while. I finally started to get over that and then Colton came.”
Colton Bruce would be his father’s second chance, an opportunity to apply the new perspective he'd gained. Colton has helped heal his father’s frustration. He’s helped mold his mindset. Keith has been more patient the second time around, more understanding. He embraces the differences now.
“I knew (Colton had a disability) the minute he came out and I thanked God,” Keith said. “Not many people get an opportunity to prove their faith. So many people take the basic things in life for granted until you’re involved with someone who doesn’t have the abilities and capabilities that we do."
Keith and Colton are tight. They pace the sidelines together during games, following the line of scrimmage as it shifts up and down the field. They run after the tee together sometimes too, jogging side by side locked hand in hand. Sometimes, Keith releases his grip and just watches his son run out there alone, proud of what he’s capable of rather than frustrated with what he’s not.
“Colton has impacted so many people’s lives over the years without even knowing it," Keith Bruce said. "Mine as much as anyone probably.”
Swisher is a hard-nosed throwback kind of football coach. He leads with an alpha mentality from kickoff to the final whistle. He’s tough, strict. He demands a lot out of his players, especially at such an early age.
It’s halftime and the Mustangs have a comfortable lead. Swisher, however, is not comfortable. He’s displeased, irritated. Frustration pours out of a stern halftime speech.
He’s about midway through the reaming when Bruce, unfazed by the tension, approaches from behind, swings his arm around Swisher’s shoulder and offers him a sip of his grape Gatorade.
“Colton,” Swisher lets out in surprise before cracking a smile and pulling him in tighter. “Get in here with us, buddy.”
Bruce’s effect is boundless. Swisher brought him on board in hopes that he might affect the children. He’s impacted everyone else as well. He’s even made the all-star team, which means he might influence an entirely new group of players. He isn’t just part of the Mustangs. He’s part of the league. And everyone is proud to include him.
“We all thought this was the greatest idea,” said Robinson, speaking from an opposing coach’s perspective. “It’s such a positive experience for everyone. Whatever you’re going through in your day, you see Colton and you realize if he can smile all day long then so can I.”
Swisher came to Robinson one day with an idea. He wanted to get Bruce into a game. And not just in a game, he wanted him to score a touchdown.
“We loved the idea. We all totally embraced it,” Robinson said fighting back tears. “And the kids, the kids were so excited. They totally understood why this was important.”
So Swisher drew up a play, the hula hoop sweep. It’s operated out of a wishbone formation. Bruce takes the handoff out of the backfield and follows an overloaded left side, hopefully, to the end zone. They tried it a few times in practice. Grown men teared up watching it unfold.
Swisher bought Bruce his own helmet to match his teammates. He presented it to him at practice, pulling it from a box and displaying it with the team circled around. Bruce hollered in excitement. Everyone else did too. The helmet was adorned with the same stickers that the players receive for big plays each week. Bruce has made several this season, albeit in slightly different ways. Still, Swisher stamped a sticker for each memory.
“He’s an important part of our team,” 13-year-old Mustangs running back Trevor Reynolds said. “He’s like another quarterback for us. We like having him around. We all wanted him to score.”
The game clock crept inside the final minute, shaving away the opportunity with each passing second that Bruce might get to play. So Robinson called a timeout before it was too late.
He signaled to Swisher that the time was right. Swisher agreed. The Mustangs led by several scores. Robinson is a proud coach but he was willing to accept defeat. If Bruce was to add one more touchdown, it was to do far more good than harm. The modest crowd that lined the chain link fence of the field applauded the sight of Bruce preparing to enter the game.
The Mustangs were 20 yards from the end zone. It seemed like a mile. The hula hoop sweep was designed for something shorter. Bruce would have to do a little more.
Everyone seemed anxious. Everyone except Bruce. He'd been waiting a long time for this. He took his stance in the backfield, planted his feet firmly below him and propped his hands on both kneepads awaiting the snap.
Down.. set... hike.
Red jerseys flanked out ahead of Bruce. He began his charge like a steam engine slowly gaining momentum until he reached a smooth chug. A wall of bodies led the way, shielding their running back from any imposing defense. Challengers were scarce. The defense seemed to understand what was unfolding.
Bruce plugged ahead, outpacing some of his protection, even plowing through teammates who probably weren’t expecting him to push ahead without them.
“He stiff-armed me out of the way and I’m on his team,” 13-year-old Mustangs running back Calder Reynolds said. “I saw him run past me and I knew we were about to score. It was a really good feeling.”
Bruce crossed the goal line with his teammates in tow. He celebrated, fittingly, with hips swinging to mimic the hula hoop motion he so loves. His teammates joined. The opponents did too. A mob of red and white pranced around together, hips rotating wildly, in celebration of a different kind of victory. One they both could share no matter the score. Swisher grinned from the sideline some 20 yards away. He'd tried to film the play on an iPad. He'd lowered the tablet by now to soak in the moment himself. It was working.
“That was so cool to see the other team dancing with him. Those kids got it. They understood,” Swisher said. “That’s the point of all this. If these kids a month, a year, 10 years from now, if this resonates and maybe they stop a kid from being bullied or maybe they’re even more open minded, then we really won something tonight.”
Bruce trotted back to the sideline with his arms raised toward the sky, then stopped and blew a kiss to the crowd — always a true showman at heart.
“I just like to play with my friends,” he’d later say. “Everyone’s nice. It’s exciting. I like it.”
The Mustangs have a scored a lot this season, 195 points in all, too many touchdowns to keep track of. Bruce’s was worth more than any of them.
The success of the regular season would suggest that at least a few more wins await the Mustangs in the playoffs, maybe even another championship. Whatever the final outcome, though, whatever win-loss record or trophies they finish with, none of it will define these players, these coaches or this team. Bruce and the Mustangs, their coaches, even the Patriots too, this league, they've all proven they're already so clearly undefeated.