It’s Friday, September 4th, Week 2 of the high school football season.
A Division I battle is about to ensue between the defending state champion Chandler Wolves and the Chaparral Firebirds.
The Chaparral captains head out to midfield: Derek Porambo, a guard who is out with a foot injury for this game, Kurt Shughart, a ball-hawk safety committed to New Mexico St., Christian Skeptaris, a U.C.-Davis-bound tight end who has a laugh that can be heard throughout the field during pregame, and senior offensive lineman Kevin Groeger.
Groeger was diagnosed with Duchenne muscular dystrophy at 10 months old when his brother, who also has the disease, was exhibiting symptoms as a toddler. Kevin has been in a wheelchair since the age of 12 and has never played a down of organized football.
That’s never stopped him from loving the game.
“I’ve grown up watching football. Like on Sundays it was just on in the background. When I was little, I didn’t really know what was going on, but it was there,” Groeger said.
Growing up in Tucson, the Groegers went to University of Arizona football games often, where Kevin was able to use football as an outlet for the first time.
“He would go to the games and loved the atmosphere, the excitement, and it was loud,” Kevin’s mother, Lisa Groeger, said. “That was how he could physically express himself because he couldn’t play. That was a big thing.”
The family eventually moved up to the Valley, and Kevin transferred to Chaparral. The atmosphere he experienced at Arizona Stadium was revisited when he got his first glimpse of the Birdcage under the Friday night lights.
Kevin always wanted to remain close to the field. Firebird running back Elijah Castro, who graduated in 2013, recognized Groeger’s love for football, and after running through the tunnel before each game, Castro would circle back and give Groeger a fist-bump.
Groeger remained a fixture at Firebird football games the next few seasons, but two senior football players, Christian Skeptaris and Derek Porambo, helped Groeger go from fan to full-on Firebird.
Skeptaris admits when he walked into his English class the first day of school, he was nervous because he was the only football player in that class. It didn’t take long for him and Groeger to bond over a football app on their iPhones.
Porambo had a similar experience in their history class. When asked to describe Kevin, the guard laughed and just said, “Anything football related, he will give you an answer off the bat.”
After a second of thinking, he added “I’m beyond blessed to meet him.”
The two seniors were talking one day and made the decision to get Groeger on the team and join the “brotherhood” as Porambo put it. They went to the Chaparral coaching staff and told them they thought the sideline could use one more Firebird.
“We just did it because we like Kevin; he’s our friend. We’re going to do this because he’s going to love it and we’re going to love it as well,” Skeptaris said.
For the coaching staff, it was a no-brainer. Offensive line coach Paul Germinaro said his coaching philosophy is to include anyone willing to play, and he appreciated the initiative taken by two of the team’s senior leaders.
“They’re selfless guys. They really care about their classmates, about other people in the community. They know that relationships are bigger than football,” Germinaro, who is Groeger’s position coach, said.
All that was left was to tell Kevin the good news.
“When Christian first told me, I was thrilled,” Kevin said. “It was very exciting, I didn’t know what to expect.”
Lisa Groeger remembers her son coming home as a new member of the football team with a new sense of excitement because his classmates, friends, and now teammates saw past his chair, which is something she admitted is hard for kids to do, and took the steps to expose her son to playing on a team and contributing to a group. Lisa recalls her son saying, “Even though I can’t play, I want to be a part of this any way that I can”.
Kevin has done exactly that. Coach Germinaro stressed that Kevin has worked tirelessly to help the Firebirds be successful.
Groeger spent the summer and first week of the regular season learning the schematics of the Chaparral playbook and how to use a computer program called Echo, which provides instant analysis of plays from just seconds before. Kevin continues to study the playbook, but has opted to spend his time on the sideline supporting his teammates.
He is also providing motivation for the Firebirds to dig deeper.
“He’s definitely someone who can bring a lot to our team even though he can’t play with us on Friday nights, but he is as much a part of this team as everyone else on this team,” Skeptaris said.
“We see him and it makes us just want to work harder because he wishes he could have one play, just one play. So if you’re taking one off, it doesn’t feel right.”
Porambo said the ‘Birds brotherhood has only become stronger with Kevin on the team. The pair has become just that – brothers. They share a locker, and Derek added Kevin’s number, #99, alongside his #51 on the back of his helmet. That way, Groeger can be out on the field with him.
And there is no place else Kevin would rather be.
“It’s been amazing. I’ve had so much fun,” Groeger said, showing off a grin from ear-to-ear.
It started with Skeptaris and Porambo, but Groeger’s addition to the roster has been “seamless” according to Coach Germinaro. What started as teammates on the field has turned into friends off the field. According to Lisa, nights off from football mean group outings to Top Golf for her son and fellow football players.
“It’s all of these kids. All of these guys have had their part in making this happen,” she said.
“I just think the world of these kids for what they’ve done because they don’t have to. ”
They didn’t have to, but they did. And now you’ll see Kevin on the sideline, jumping from player to player, providing support, cheering on the defense, and being a part of the team any way that he can.