South View’s Matthew Novak sprints past Autism

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.”

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