Novi Wildcat Robby Heil scores a touchdown for his mother Debbie Heil. Steve Perez, The Detroit News
Novi — It was much more than just a midseason high school football game Friday night between South Lyon East and Novi.
In fact, it was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for Robby Heil of Novi, who got the chance to see what it was like to be a running back in front of hundreds of fans, getting a carry in the first half of Novi’s 42-14 win.
Heil, a special-needs senior who has Down syndrome, has been the longtime Novi water boy, wearing his No. 24 jersey while handling his job.
Novi head coach Jeff Burnside talked with South Lyon East coach Joe Pesci earlier this month, working on plans for Heil to carry the ball on an untimed down.
And, Heil got that carry with just under 11 minutes left in the half in a 7-7 tie, running right and scoring on a 36-yard run. The play didn’t count on the scoreboard, but it certainly did in the hearts and minds of the fans, teammates, opponents and his mother, Debbie Heil, who has been battling cancer.
Players from both teams mobbed Heil in the end zone after he spiked the ball, then huddled around him in celebration. Then, they all took a knee while Pesci presented him with a No. 1 South Lyon East jersey autographed by the players while his mother looked on in tears.
“It’s incredible,” Debbie Heil said. “Coach Burnside wanted to make this happen and he was able to talk with the South Lyon East coach and make this happen. To have an opponent come together and make this play happen, make him feel he’s No. 1 on the team. I mean, did you see South Lyon East stand up and have banners of No. 24.
“Then, he was presented a jersey from South Lyon East and all the players signed it. He feels he’s a part of the football team. He knows he’s very important bringing them water and the boys love him. They’re the first ones to give him hugs and he’ll tell the players to calm down when they get down on themselves.”
Debbie has been one of the team photographers the past four years so she can keep an eye on Robby. She didn’t know Robby would be carrying the ball until his older brother Charles came home from Michigan State Thursday night to tell her.
“I’ve always said it takes a community to raise a child and you can tell this community here in Novi and South Lyon have really raised a wonderful child and I’m very blessed to have a community like this,” she said. “These boys (Novi players) are like family. They have been so instrumental with Robby.”
No doubt, Heil was a celebrity, first going through pregame warm-ups, then actually taking a few pictures before the game got underway.
“It was a lot of fun,” Robby said. “I practiced that play, practiced it a lot. Coach Burnside said I was doing a good job and surprised me (with the news I was playing).”
“He had a grin from side to side when I told him,” Burnside said. “I’m so glad the East kids were here. Coach Pesci is an outstanding human being, very classy kids. They came up with the idea of giving Robby a signed jersey. It was better than I could even have imagined. It was just outstanding.”
Yes, high school sports is all about competition, sportsmanship, respect and for one beautiful night in late summer, pure kindness.
And, Burnside made sure Heil was prepared for his moment, working him out all week to be ready when his number was called.
“He got the full feeling of being a football player this week,” said Burnside. “I put his butt in pads and I got after him a couple of times and made him do down-ups. I assure you, he got the full feeling.”
Pesci was thrilled to be a part of the special moment.
“Jeff called me and said he wanted to put something past me, talked about how Robby had been the water boy the past couple of years, wears a uniform with shoulder pads during games and delivers the water to the team, how he loves the game of football and everything with it,” Pesci said. “He said it would mean a lot to him and his mom, it would be special if he could get a carry. I told my team and they were extremely excited about making this kid’s night and have the opportunity to have a little fun out there.
“Sometimes the kids tend to forget just really what’s important and this is one of those moments we can all look back on and realize what a great thing we were all a part of.”
Said South Lyon East defensive end Lucas Bird: “It was a great opportunity for him and I’m glad we could be a part of it. I’m sure it’s something he’ll remember his whole life.”
Lou D’Annibale, father of Novi star receiver Anthony D’Annibale, was thrilled to see it take place.
“It’s fantastic,” D’Annibale said. “I used to coach the Novi Bobcats (third-through-eighth grade feeder program) and he was our water guy then, too, so I’ve known him for a long time and he’s a great kid. His mother is a wonderful woman, our manager back then. It’s a great tribute for her and him and so well deserved.”
Oh, and before Robby’s run, South Lyon East (0-4) had the edge in plays (22-5) and yards (90-54). He fired Novi (2-2) up and running back Nathan Hankerson responded with the night of his life, rushing for a school-record 276 yards on 20 carries, including second-half TD runs of 62, 47 yards and 39.
“This was a great night to be a part of Robby’s celebration,” Hankerson said. “We practiced that play a lot and it and it was nice to create this moment for him and his family and it’s a great moment for all of us.
“It was a great game and I’m excited for what’s next to come. I’m extremely proud of myself, too, and my whole team.”
Yes, a night truly to remember.