Tackling the big score: son with autism invokes tears with rugby success

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Tackling the big score: son with autism invokes tears with rugby success

When April Schultz signed her nine-year-old son up for Regina Mini Rugby, she didn't have any expectations that he might do anything beyond run around the field.

Reiss Schultz is autistic, and while he loved playing alongside his teammates, he was getting frustrated by the end of the season, having not scored the rugby equivalent of a football touchdown, called a "try."

Reiss tells the story of the final game of the season in his own distinctive way.

"Do you know they had big kids in the field?"

"Do you know they tackle me and it's painful?"

"Do you know on that day there wasn't that much strong kids on my team? There was more stronger kids on the other team. I said I was going to die."

It turns out he lived to survive the tale — with Regina Mini Rugby presenting him his try-scoring ball this weekend and leaving him with a champion's grin.

'Gone through so much'

April said she'd signed her son up for rugby having heard from a friend about how a family member who had Asperger's Syndrome had a positive experience with the club.

Reiss tried the sport out last year, and this year moved to an older group of nine to 13-year-olds. With the new season introducing a more physical form of rugby to the group, April was a bit apprehensive about how her son might adapt.

"He's gone through so much stuff for a child."

While her son has a high-functioning form of autism, it's still hard for him to form friendships with other children. He was kicked out of school in Grade 1 after certain situations triggered "typical autistic behaviours," like meltdowns and curling into a ball, she said.

"As an autism mom, all you want is your child to be accepted and be able to form any type of friendship, because it's difficult for them," April said, adding the past few years have seen him make some "big strides" in the right direction.

Rugby brought out her son's confidence. Even though he sometimes did atypical things, like jumping on all fours to handle his excitement, she could see he was also getting into the game.

Still, on the final game day of the season, April could see the tears in her son's eyes after he was repeatedly tackled by bigger, older and more experienced players.

"He was getting so frustrated that he wasn't able to catch up to the big kids, and score and get past them."

The biggest try

She told him his team was depending on him and that he couldn't let them down. His coach caught his mother's eye, and when Reiss got back in the game, the coach gave him a pep talk that had him lift his chin up and try again.

He got the ball and finding himself two metres from the try line.

Knowing how much he wanted it, Reiss's teammates formed a maul, with the coaches joining to help out to get him over that tantalizing close span of space.

"Do you know probably I was trying to escape and kids were trying to tackle me but the coach and everyone tried to stop me from being tackled," said Reiss.

"I got to the end and just stamped the ball on the score thingy."

With the maul collapsed over the line, everyone wondered if he'd actually scored, but then Reiss threw his arms in the air, screaming, "I did it, I did it!"

April began bawling, feeling her heart explode with emotion.

"The way he dropped to his knees, hands in the air, he was so excited. He was crying, I was crying, everybody was crying, I think the coaches were possibly wiping a few tears away."

Robbie Godfrey, president of Regina Mini Club, called it a "testament to the sport of rugby.

"Moments like this make us realize we want to open doors to people that have barriers to entry, challenges to entry, outside of the norm," he said, explaining this includes opening rugby up to people with disabilities, or from lower-income backgrounds.

"What it means to us — this is where we want to be."

All she ever wanted was for her son to be accepted, and in that moment, April felt that happening.

As for Reiss, his plans for rugby include getting stronger, faster and better.

"Maybe next time I'll try and flip them over and tackle them and steal the ball."