SNELLVILLE - During a break in practice for today's Rivalries of Gwinnett All-Star game, a South Gwinnett defensive lineman asked Cortland Hale a question.
"He was like, 'Who is the autistic kid at Brookwood?'" Hale said. "I said, 'It's me.' He was like, 'I didn't expect that.'"
Hale stands 6-foot-3, weighs 270 pounds, started the past season on Brookwood's defensive line, recorded 31 tackles and 0.5 sacks in a defense designed to give the linebackers most of the tackles. He earned honorable mention all-county and a spot in the second county all-star game.
None of his honors, tackles or sacks nor his starting position came to him because of his autism. They came to him because of him.
"For all practical purposes, Cortland is just like any of our other players," Brookwood coach Mark Crews said. "We treat him like any of our other players and he acts like any of our other players."
With a starting spot, awards and accolades, Hale is better than many of the other players.
Tonight may be Hale's final football game. He plans to get his GED right after graduation, but college football possibilities remain slim.
"There is no path for a kid like this," said Matt Hale, Cortland's father. "(Football) has been a wonderful thing for him."
Finding a hope
The Hales lived in Tampa, Fla., when Cortland was born. The third of four children, Cortland's parents knew how infants and toddlers acted. They noticed Cortland struggling with speech development among other symptoms.
"We were used to having kids," Matt said. "When he was about 2 years old we noticed that he wasn't doing the things that the other ones did, especially in speech. There was a delay. Something was just not quite right."
Doctors diagnosed Cortland with Autism Spectrum Disorder, a broad diagnosis covering a range of severities. His parents didn't know more than that about their son's condition when they moved back to Georgia, settling in Gwinnett County.
In the Gwinnett County school system, Cortland attended more than a handful of elementary schools, taking special education courses and passing up the ladder with his class. He ended up at Five Forks Middle School and eventually at Brookwood.
As a youth, Cortland kept quiet. He interacted with his peers at school, but his socializing ended with the school bell. A week ago, the high school senior gave a speech to a group of more than 200 people. The crux of the speech was this, "If there is anything you think you want to do or be a part of, do it! Give it a try. Get involved in the things you are interested in."
In between speech struggles and keynote speaker, Cortland played football.
Briley Hale started playing football when he turned 9. When Cortland turned 9, he went to football practice with his brother. Gwinnett Football League coach Mark Stowers accepted Cortland on his team.
Under the eyes of Briley, and his younger brother, Lawson, Cortland kept going to practice.
"It was difficult," Cortland said. "I was very uncoordinated. When I first started, I did not want to do it. I wanted to quit. But through the support of my family and my coaches I kept playing and it was the greatest thing that ever happened to me."
Change came slowly.
The first season, Cortland played, practiced and started to make friends.
"He still pretty much kept to himself," Matt said.
Those few friends multiplied in his second season. Soon, Cortland had invitations to spend the night with his friends. He went to parties and out to dinner.
Before football, Cortland obsessed on movies. He knew directors, writers, release dates, anything. He was a walking imdb.com. But football teased Cortland out of the fantasy of films into a world where he could become an inspiration.
"It let him be a part of something," Matt said. "If you are just a special-ed kid that knows who wrote 'Gladiator,' it is not the same."
Once quiet, he now greets strangers with friendly hellos.
At an autism walk in Atlanta, he plowed through a crowd of people to shake the hand of former Home Depot CEO Bernie Marcus, founder of the autism-related Marcus Institute. As the football seasons piled up, Cortland grew into that bold, fearless and funny high school senior.
In early parent-teacher conferences, the teachers would explain how much lower Cortland's reading or math skills were compared to his age. By the time Cortland finished his sophomore year at Brookwood, teachers recommended mainstreaming him. He did for a semester, but the pressure of the new courses combined with the threat of losing his football eligibility if he struggled too much outweighed the benefits.
"That seemed like throwing the baby out with the bath water," Matt said. "We felt like that could get rid of what improved his life."
Matt watched Cortland's every play this past season.
He took the season off from filming the team to focus on his middle son. Many times he missed what happened on the play with his eyes fixed on Cortland. If Cortland got blocked out of the play, it didn't matter if someone else sacked the quarterback. Cortland's play was the show for his father and much of the time for everyone else.
But of all the football firsts and great moments, this season, the top came in Week 1. Cortland's first start. At the Georgia Dome.
"It was unbelievable to be able to play in the Atlanta Falcons' stadium," Cortland said. "To have the crowd and the fans at Brookwood being there and watching me play was unbelievable. I was there as a kid, watching the high school team when I was 9 years old.
"I think my most memorable moment was just starting in the Dome game, being able to accomplish starting at Brookwood."
Matt remembers hoping Cortland could start a game. He remembers dismissing it as just a dream. It choked him up when his dream came true.
"You just tear up," he said.
That began a season of watching. Watching Cortland play. Watching him win. Watching him lose. Watching him study. Watching him put on his first suit for his first high school dance. And, today, watching him be honored as one of the top football players in Gwinnett County.
"It was a big accomplishment," Cortland said. "I was one of five people at Brookwood to be invited to the All-Star game. It is awesome knowing that I will get to play in that."
A special honor without the special label. Making it special to all the Hales.
"He had a great year. We are just thrilled with how it turned out," Matt said. "We'll be there (tonight) even more proud than we have been. It is exciting for him to be recognized.
"None of that would have happened if he had not decided to play football."
Focus on the future
Since his first football practice, to his final game this season, Cortland never jumped offside. Not once.
"It's just watching the ball," he said. "Don't move. Don't move until the ball moves."
No one has ever questioned the simplicity of the rule, but only Hale seems to fully grasp the idea. His autism may play a role, but it's a tribute to his discipline and focus.
After today, Cortland's next goal is passing the test to earn his GED. After that, his future is cloudy. He wants to play football, but accepts he may not.
"It would be great," he said. "It's kind of a hard path."
Cortland knows hard paths, it is his life. So far every goal he set, he reached. Play football. Play for Brookwood. Start for Brookwood. A diploma comes next. And a look at his recent speech shows promise in speaking and motivating.
That was another goal for Cortland. Another goal accomplished.
"Part of my goal this year, as far as playing, was starting to encourage other autistic parents to realize that anything is possible," Cortland said. "You can go farther than you think."