Staff Photo: John Bohn Richard Corbett, also known as Touchdown Richard, a recent graduate of South Gwinnett High School, celebrates a South Gwinnett touchdown during a recent football game against Archer. Richard attends many South Gwinnett football games, supporting his team while seated in his decorated, motorized wheel chair.
SNELLVILLE -- Richard Corbett is pumped about Friday night's big game against Parkview. Sporting his blue, No. 21 jersey, he plans to stake his ground on the sidelines and do what he does best: cheer on the South Gwinnett Comets.
When Corbett suits up, he's one of the most important aspects of the community's Friday night gridiron experience.
Earlier this week, the 22-year-old and his father, Rick, visited the field house beside the Richard Snell Community Stadium to see a good friend.
Sitting inside, the expression on Richard's face goes from curious to ecstatic. He hears something. Keys jingling in the door behind him.
Richard's father leans forward. "What is it, buddy?"
His son's eyes dance with excitement, hands gesturing. The door opens. Richard squirms in his power wheelchair, a squeal of happiness escapes his lips, and Coach John Small high-fives one of his team's most dedicated fans.
Affectionately known as "Touchdown Richard," Corbett hasn't let cerebral palsy stop him from supporting his fellow students and friends.
He's there every moment, for every first down, every field goal, every touchdown. That's how it's been since 2009, when his father first got the idea to help his son illustrate to the world just how much he loved South Gwinnett High School football.
"Three years ago, the game before homecoming, I decided to make this football guy out of piping," Rick said. "I put a South Gwinnett shirt over the piping and mounted it on the back of Richard's wheelchair. The first game Richard had that thing on his wheelchair, it was a big game, Parkview vs. South Gwinnett."
Following the game, Coach Small approached the Corbetts. "Coach said to us, 'Well, Notre Dame's got Touchdown Jesus, and now South Gwinnett's got Touchdown Richard,'" Rick said.
The Touchdown Richard decorations have grown over the years, with additions like a football helmet mounted above the jersey and a sign that reads: "Believe. Are you ready!?"
Small said Richard's excitement is contagious on the field.
"At every game, he's right there waiting for us," said Small, sitting in his office Wednesday with the Corbetts and one of Richard's former teachers. "It doesn't matter how the game's going, he always puts a smile on your face. It puts things in perspective for you, so you see what's really important. And he's always out there, win or lose, for us, which again puts things in perspective for you."
Small said he's not the only one who feels that way. As the players emerge on the field before each game, they ask "where's Richard?"
"He's helped our kids grow," Small said. "I know it means a ton to him, but he has a bigger impact on us. Our kids have come to understand Richard and kids who are in the same situation Richard is in. He's built a bond between these kids and the kids in our school."
Richard smiles and laughs with each syllable uttered by Small. He seems to glow -- even more than usual -- in the coach's presence.
Connie Dalton, one of his former special education teachers, said that Richard thinks the world of the coaches and players. "When I would teach him in class, it was always 'football, football, football.' We had to tell him, no, that's not til Friday night.'"
As if illustrating the point, Richard waits until his teacher finishes to ask a question:
Richard: "There's a football over there. Can we play?"
Glancing at a ball sitting beside the coach's desk, Rick smiles. "It's his favorite thing in the world. When he sees the players, either in school or on the field, he goes nuts. Richard can't throw a great touchdown pass. He can't run down the field, but he can give them something else. He can give them emotion and understanding and acceptance. Things that are more important than any game."
In return, the father said, they accept Richard "for who he is."
At the Oct. 5 game against Berkmar High School, a South player showed Richard just how much the team appreciated his support. One of the players offered him the captain spot on the team. "Richard got to go out and do the coin toss ceremony," Rick said. "That was pretty special. He got to keep the coin. That kid really made Richard's day."
Dad stops for a moment, a puzzled look on his face. "Now, who was it?" he asks aloud.
Richard: "It was Reggie."
Rick: "Oh yeah, Reggie. Reggie is one of Richard's good friends."
Richard: "Where is he?"
As if on cue, Reggie Carter, a South Gwinnett linebacker and University of Georgia recruit, walks through the door. A smile spreads across Richard's face, hands gesturing frantically, eyebrows raised. Richard all but explodes with excitement. "Reggie!"
Reggie smiles too. "Hey man!" He pats his friend on the chest. "Rich-errrd!"
Sitting down in a chair beside him, Carter brags on the team's biggest fan.
"He means a lot to us. We see him there every Friday night with his touchdown poster, and it keeps us going throughout the game," Carter said. "He's always got that energy. He just goes crazy, and it gives us hype."Several days after Carter offered Richard the chance to participate in the coin toss, the entire South team and cheerleaders held a party to celebrate his 22nd birthday.
"It was a special week," his dad said. "The kids of South Gwinnett have given Richard a gift from the heart: a gift of friendship, understanding and caring. This is where he belongs."