South View’s Matthew Novak sprints past Autism

April 1, 2015

This is from the Sept. 23 edition of the Fayetteville Observer…

From the bleachers, South View’s Matthew Novak looks like any other high school soccer player.

Look closer and you’ll see that his No. 14 shirt fits like everyone else’s and his runs and passes sync up with those of his teammates.

He’s tall and athletic-looking, and presses opposing defenses with his tireless energy.

He wears a captain’s armband with pride and jogs off the pitch when substituted, grabs a water bottle and has a seat on the bench to wait to be subbed back in.

Off the pitch, things are a bit different for Matthew.

Matthew, a senior forward for the Tigers, is on the Autism spectrum.

Autism is a neurological disorder, characterized by social impairments, communication difficulties and restricted, repetitive, and stereotyped patterns of behavior.

Its severity depends on where individuals fall on that spectrum. Because of the wide range between mild cases and more severe ones, no two cases of the disorder are exactly alike.

Or, put more simply, he’s not your average teenager.

Matthew is considered high-functioning, which means that – in many ways – he looks and acts like any other senior in high school.

In other ways, however, he faces a unique set of challenges.

Things like driving a car, shopping and basic social interactions that come naturally to most 17 year olds are far more difficult for those living on the Autism spectrum.

But on the pitch, the disorder can almost be seen as a benefit.

“When I met Matthew, I was intrigued by his focus,” South View coach Robert Gamble said. “His focus is sports. He’s high-functioning in sports. He’s 150 percent all the time. He’ll pass out (before he stops), just to keep from disappointing anybody. … (His running) is his hyper-focus from Autism.”

His mother, Donna Novak, agrees.

“He loves all sports, especially soccer,” she said. “Whatever it takes to make the play, he’s going to find a way to do it.”

On Sept. 11, Matthew’s hard work paid off in a goal during South View’s 8-1 win over Hoke County.

“It was awesome. It was my first goal ever,” he said. “I didn’t expect to score, but I tried my best and I got a goal and I loved it.”

He wasn’t the only one.

“He’s an inspiration for a lot of people,” Gamble said. “That goal was magical. He’s still talking about it.”

It’s good that Matthew doesn’t mind reliving the goal, since his mother was busy working the concession stand for a South View football game when it happened.

“I hear about it every day,” she said.

As much as he enjoyed the goal, his relishes his role as captain even more.

“It means that coach picked me out,” he said. “He knows I can give leadership. He knows I can be respectful and control stuff on the field. Basically be a good leader.”

Matthew’s athletic success isn’t limited to the pitch, either.

He’s won 15 gold medals in Special Olympics, but it was a bronze medal hanging around his neck during an interview with a reporter recently.

“This one I got in basketball for nationals in New Jersey,” he said. “We played teams from states like Kentucky, New Hampshire and Pennsylvania. We got bronze. Our coach, Coach Miller, coached us good and our other coach, Robert Novak helped out a lot.”

In addition to his Special Olympics exploits, Matthew volunteers for Camp Challenge – a summer camp for children and adolescents with disabilities.

“He’s got a good heart,” his mother said. “At Camp Challenge, he’s always trying to help the smaller ones with sports.

“He played shortstop for the Special Olympic softball team, and he’d cover second, third and even the outfield. He was all over the place. He’s a great guy. I’m very proud of him.”

He also serves as a manager for the South View baseball team, works in the concession stand with his mother and has been an intern with the Fayetteville SwampDogs.

“He wants to be as quote-unquote ‘normal’ as possible, and he does that through sports,” Gamble said.

“Every once in a while you get what I call a day brightener,” South View principal Brian Edkins said. “You can be having a bad day, and you see that smile and it puts everything in perspective.

“If I had 1,800 of him here, this would be the best place in the world.”

Matthew plans to take some classes at Fayetteville Technical Community College next year when his high school career is over – with an eye on staying close to the game he loves.

“I want to try to be a coach for soccer,” he said.

It doesn’t seem likely that Autism will slow him down.

“Autism is like a disability, but anybody can do what their mind states for them to do,” he said. “Mine’s about soccer. Some kids say that you can’t do anything, but if your mind’s set, you can do anything you want.”

Mia Hamm, Kristine Killy, Tisha Venturini Hoch to host soccer camp in Southern Pines

April 1, 2015

My story from the March 30 edition of the Fayetteville Observer…

Three weeks before the start of the 2015 FIFA Women’s World Cup, young players from across the Cape Fear region will get the chance to share the field with three former members of the U.S. Women’s National Team.

Mia Hamm, Kristine Lilly and Tisha Venturini Hoch will be hosting the Team First Soccer Academy in Southern Pines on May 16-17 in conjunction with the Athletic Club of the Sandhills.

Hamm is a two-time FIFA Women’s Player of the Year, two-time World Cup winner, two-time Olympic gold medalist, four-time national champion at the University of North Carolina – as are Lilly and Venturini Hoch – and is a member of the World Soccer Hall of Fame.

Lilly is also a two-time World Cup and gold medal winner, and with 352 appearances for the national team, she is the most capped (games played) player in history, man or woman.

Venturini Hoch, in addition to winning a World Cup and a gold medal, won the 1994 Hermann Trophy as the top NCAA Division I player, and she scored the first goal in women’s Olympic soccer history in 1996.

Hamm said they consider camps such as the one in Southern Pines as their chance to pay it forward.

“We always feel so honored wherever we go,” Hamm said in a phone interview. “But to be able to come back home, so close to where we grew as people and players at UNC, it means a lot to us.”

“For us, it’s all about the kids in the area getting to have them on the same field,” AC Sandhills executive director Todd Abbey said. “You don’t get opportunities like that very often.”

And unlike some camps, where big name hosts drop by for the opening and closing events, campers will get the chance to learn up close from Hamm, Lilly and Venturini Hoch.

“One of the things we pride ourselves on is that the four of us are really hands-on,” Hamm said. “We’re involved in every minute of every session. We kind of roam around and offer support and coaching. We’re constantly on the field to enhance and clarify the themes of the day.”

For Hamm, the chance to bring the camp to Southern Pines appealed to her small-town background.

“One of the things we love is to be able to go to places that aren’t necessarily hotbeds of soccer,” she said. “I’m from a small town. Kristine’s from a small town. Tisha’s from a small town. There’s talent in small towns, and we just want to be able to share our experiences with those players.”

The fact that the camp is close to Fort Bragg resonates with Hamm, who is the daughter of an Air Force colonel.

“For families in the military, sports can be a great icebreaker,” she said. “Moving around as much as we did, sports opened doors for me for new relationships. As I got older, it got harder to move. Sports were a great place to kind of get lost. I found a lot of comfort in sport, and especially soccer.”

There’s currently a gap in the camp schedule around the Women’s World Cup, and that’s not a coincidence.

“Kristine’s doing some stuff in Canada” for the World Cup, Hamm said. “To be a fan of the sport, you can learn by watching, boys and girls.”

The Americans haven’t won a World Cup since Hamm, Lilly and Venturini Hoch achieved that feat in 1999. Hamm is confident that this year’s squad can break the string of recent near-misses on the world stage.

“I think they can do it,” she said of the team’s title hopes. “It’s never easy, and I think the players understand that. They’ve got a great mix of veteran leadership and young players that I love. In the end, you just want to peak at the right time. They had a good result in Portugal (at a warm-up tournament), and I think they’ll build on that.”

The last fundraising plea for Ethan’s Avengers

October 9, 2014

The shirts are here and the walk is set for Saturday.

So, this is my last fundraising plea – until I get around to looking at the boy’s Yankee Candle stuff for school.

You can make a donation here (Give Now). Or you can come walk with us on Saturday (Join My Team).

Here’s why you should.

As an eternal realist – some say pessimist – I have waited for the day when I get a call from school. One like this where a couple of kids thought it might be funny to duct tape an autistic child to a soccer goal.

Fortunately, we’ve experienced nothing that rises to that level.

Ethan’s classmates, or at least the vast majority of them, are wonderful. They comfort him when he gets frustrated, or gently remind him to follow the rules. They even rat him out to the teacher when he pockets the cool compass from art class.

Why do they do this? Education.

They know Ethan. They’ve asked enough questions to their teachers and parents about Autism. They know he’s a smart, sweet kid and they want to see him succeed.

The Autism Society of North Carolina is one of the organizations out there committed to raising awareness for Autism Spectrum Disorder. Shanna and I were lost, scared and confused when we began our journey with ASD. The Autism Society of North Carolina helped us find the path – one that has led us to a happy and healthy place.

That’s why I support them.

I hope you will, too.

A return to blogging: The joys of parenthood

May 1, 2014

OK, the fact that it’s been 11 months since I’ve posted anything here is a little embarrassing.

In my defense, I blog more often here. You know, where I get paid to do so.

Anyway, we’ve had some issues at the Capps household of late.

My son, now 12, is turning into a teenager. A teenager that lives somewhere on the Autism spectrum, which adds a level of challenge to an already complicated situation.

It’s interesting to watch his reactions to my attempts at parenting…

Come on over

June 27, 2013


I’ve been on the soccer blog.

It’s here.

Long time, no blog

April 17, 2013

I really should pop in here more often, on the off chance that anyone is still reading.

It hasn’t been a great time for me professionally as of late, but that’s no excuse to neglect the oldest piece of social media with which I am associated.

I’ll try to do better.


ESPN and the race card

December 14, 2012

Full disclosure: I don’t watch ESPN’s “First Take.”

I’m probably not the demographic, so I doubt they’ve missed me.

But yesterday, panelist Rob Parker crossed a line with these comments on Washington Redskins’ quarterback Robert Griffin III.

Here’s the transcript:

I talked to some people down in Washington, D.C. … friends of mine who are around at some of the press conferences, people I’ve known for a long time. But my question, which is just a straight honest question, is he a brother, or is he a cornball brother? … He’s not really, he’s black, he kind of does his thing, but he’s not really down with the cause, he’s not one with us, he’s kind of black, but he’s not really like the guy you want to hang out because he’s off to something else ….

I don’t know because I keep hearing these things. We all know he has a white fianceé, there was all this talk about he’s a Republican, which there’s no information at all. I’m just trying to dig deeper into why he has an issue. Because we did find out with Tiger Woods, Tiger Woods was like, ‘I got black skin, but don’t call me black.’ So people got a little wondering about Tiger Woods ….

To me, [his braids are] very urban, and makes you feel like, I think you’d have a clean cut, if he were more straitlaced or not like, wearing braids, you’re a brother, you’re a brother if you’ve got braids on.

Now, I know that some people feel that this is a legitimate line of discourse, but for me, this crosses that line between controversial, edgy TV and out-and-out racism.

While ESPN has admitted that Parker’s comments were inappropriate, The same comments aired again Thursday afternoon in the rebroadcast and there is no sign of Parker on today’s show – or mention of his comments.

Personally, I expect better from a network that presents itself as a serious journalistic entity.

But then again, this is ESPN, so I’m expecting a week off (with pay) and a feeble apology from Parker sometime soon.

I’d love to start a boycott of ESPN, but who would I be kidding?

I’m going to watch the network anyway, which I means I play into ESPN’s notion that it is uncountable for the things it allows on its airwaves.

Seriously, sort it out four-letter.

Autism strikes back

October 8, 2012

We’re actually very lucky.

We’re at the point where Autism sort of stands over in the corner in Ethan’s life – noticeable, but not all that intrusive in day-to-day life. But, every once in a while, Autism walks into the middle of the room and shouts for a little while.

Today was one of those days.

We met at school for a meeting to go over Ethan’s summer evaluation with the school’s psychologist. We were a bit curious how he would test now, as opposed to his last evaluation back in 2005.

Well, to no one’s surprise, he still has Autism. But, apparently he now has a learning disability in math to go along with it.

What’s one more log on the developmental issues fire, right?

Immediately, I felt bad. I read line after line of the evaluation. His IQ score, his reading ability, his lack of memory function – it felt like Autism was standing in front of me, reciting it aloud.

It’s hard to hear your child described as below average, atypical, socially awkward and disengaged.

So, in short, I was having my own personal pity party.

Then, I thought about the boy.

His smile. His hard work to progress past the three-year-old boy they said was mentally retarded. The little boy who didn’t talk until he was four that can now chat up complete strangers for minutes on end. The kid who used to wear a weighted vest in class to comfort him that now stands in front of classmates to use the smart board.

He’s not listening to Autism.

Why should I?

The idea that I could ever spin such negatives into a hopeful vision of days to come is due in large part to the help we got from the Autism Society of North Carolina.

The annual Run/Walk for Autism is Saturday in Raleigh. Earlier contributions have helped change my life, and the life of my son.

There’s no telling how many lives you can touch with your donation.


Monday moments – featuring an apology

June 18, 2012

Wow, I’ve been really slack over here, haven’t I?

In my defense, I’ve been a bit more active on the soccer blog.

Of course, I get paid to do that one…

Anyway, I’ll try to do better…

Hats off to Webb Simpson for winning the U.S. Open. I watched a lot of the final round yesterday, and while folks like Jim Furyk and some guy named Tiger were busy imploding, Simpson just played smart and steady.

Good for him.

LeBron James and the Heat grabbed a 2-1 series lead in the NBA Finals. Oklahoma City left a lot of points at the foul line last night, so this series is far from over.

And I’ll leave you with this, a reminder that losing one’s temper can lead to embarrassing results:

We interrupt our sports coverage for a political announcement on Amendment One

May 4, 2012

This is a sports blog.

I still know that, my lack of recent postings not withstanding.

But I’m also something of a political junkie, which compels me to weigh in on Amendment One.

That’s the “gay marriage” amendment on the ballot next week here in North Carolina which, to be brief, seeks to define marriage as between one man and one woman.

Anyone that knows me knows that I’m a conservative Republican, and have been since before I was old enough to actually vote. I argued with my high school teachers and accused them of political bias while thumbing through Rush Limbaugh’s books.

I’m also a Christian. I believe in God, his son Jesus and the idea that one day, we will all be judged for the life we’re living here.

So the political litmus test says that, as a conservative and a Christian, I have to be in favor of this amendment.

Nothing could be further from the truth.

I know that some people will disagree with my choice. Thanks to the freedoms afforded to us as Americans, we are free to do so.

I’m not here to convince you to change your mind. I’m here to tell you why I feel the way I do.

It’s not necessary – North Carolina state law already defines marriage as a union between a man and woman. This amendment would add that law to the constitution, which would make it much harder to change in the future.

It’s a waste of time and money – There’s no way this will be allowed to stand should it reach the Supreme Court. And rest assured, it will.

It’s big government – I can’t rail against Obamacare, the current presidential regime, the silliness of our tax code or the Democratic party in general in one breath and then support an amendment that makes the government a tool of evangelicals in another.

I don’t buy into the slippery slope theory – Some proponents say, well, if we don’t pass this people will want to marry trees or their pets. OK, if that’s true, if we do pass it, is it not then possible to have laws forcing businesses to close on Sunday or for rapists to marry their victims? Sounds silly, right?

My thought exactly.

The Bible says that homosexuality is wrong – Yes, it does. It also says we shouldn’t judge people and we should love one another. Every verse I’ve read condemning it, there’s another that tells me, “Do not judge, and you will not be judged. Do not condemn, and you will not be condemned. Forgive, and you will be forgiven.”

Finally, I can’t cast a vote that discriminates against a group of people.

I’ve often wondered how I would have reacted if I were alive during the Civil Rights movement, or even the Civil War itself. Would I, as my ancestors did, pick up a rifle and fight for the Confederacy?

Or would I heed the words of Frederick Douglass, cross the Mason-Dixon Line and fight for the Union?

I honestly don’t know.

What I do know is this:

I’m not going to cast a vote that will push back the equal rights movement for gay and lesbian couples 20 years or more. I can’t cast a vote that defines some of my friends and family as unworthy of marriage, or under this amendment, even civil unions.

I refuse to condone any legislation that seeks to limit civil rights while expanding government to cover a religious definition of marriage.

I don’t have to agree with something to support the right for it to exist.

You vote however you’d like.

That’s just where I am on the subject.


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