The play came in from the sideline.
“Jet right, 34 blast on three. Ready, break.”
As Tempe Prep quarterback Rocky Brittain dropped back to hand the ball off to David DeJeu, a sea of green opened up directly in front of the running back, and DeJeu flew through it, 54 yards untouched into the end zone.
Those attending the Tempe Prep-Fort Thomas football game Sept. 26 might not have noticed anything unusual about the play — it’s a staple of the Knights’ offense — but according to doctors, there is no way it should ever have been executed, considering the personnel on the field.
The guard who helped create the gaping hole has cerebral palsy.
‘THEY DON’T KNOW JOSH’
Josh Brittain and his twin sister, Jordan, were born two months premature and at age 2 were diagnosed with the neurological disorder that can affect muscle coordination and speech. Their cerebral palsy is the result of each suffering a brain hemorrhage at birth.
Both cases are mild and neither have speech impediments. Jordan’s is nearly unnoticeable, their mother, Melissa, said.
“Her left side doesn’t develop as quickly as her right,” she said.
Josh’s affects only his lower body, and he has shown obvious signs of the disorder since he was an infant. At age 2, not only was he not walking, he wasn’t sitting up.
“We knew something was going on,” Melissa said. “We didn’t know what.”
When the doctor informed the Brittains that their twins had cerebral palsy, she also told them Josh would never walk on his own.
“There was a part of us that was crushed, but then there was another part of us that, even at 2, we were like, they just don’t know Josh,” Melissa said. “I think we were naive. We were young, but it was like, ‘That’s just not an option. It’s not going to be that way.’ ”
One year later, Josh defied the doctor’s pronouncement.
“It was kind of an answer to prayer,” said his father, Tommy, the football coach at Tempe Prep. “He suddenly started walking. ... I was home for Christmas — I had been going to college — and all of a sudden, out of nowhere, he walked across the room. It was a real awkward, pronounced gait. But he’s been walking on his own ever since. He’s never needed a walker. Never.”
Josh has undergone two sets of surgeries to relieve spasticity (muscle tightness) in his legs and increase mobility, but other than those procedures, everything he has accomplished has been the direct result of hard work and an unshakable desire to succeed.
At age 4, he underwent a posterior rhizotomy, which involves cutting the nerves in the lower part of the spinal cord that cause spasticity. At 11, his hamstrings were lengthened following a growth spurt, and his left foot, which turned in, was broken and reset.
Today, the 18-year-old senior walks with a crouched gait, has noticeably thin legs, can’t bend his toes and is prone to lose his balance easily. But with the resolve he first displayed at age 3 and a strong support system, Josh has — for the most part — taken the “dis” out of disabled.
“I forget about (cerebral palsy),” said Josh, who is as laid back and confident as he is motivated. “I don’t even know I have it. If you asked me, ‘What’s wrong?’ I would have to think about what you’re talking about for a second.”
SIGNIFICANCE OF SPORTS
Football has been an important part of Josh’s life from an early age. His grandfather, Gary Brittain, began taking him to Cardinals games when he was 5 and taught him many of the game’s intricacies.
Shortly after, Josh expressed a desire to play, a request that was met with trepidation by his family. Although his parents were somewhat reluctant to let him on the field, they wanted him to have a football experience and thought it would be better at a younger age.
Either he’d struggle to the point where the game wasn’t fun and he’d quit, or he’d hold up better than they expected. After doctors assured the Brittains that the effects of cerebral palsy couldn’t be worsened by playing football, Josh joined a team in the third grade.
Not everyone was fully supportive, though. “The coach told us you should find something new to do with your son. He didn’t understand that it was Josh who wanted this,” Melissa said.
Although he did struggle, Josh enjoyed himself and has gotten better. He played quarterback on his junior high flag football team, then moved to guard in high school.
Today, Josh is 5-foot-10, 158 pounds — undersized for a guard, even in 1A — but he is the Knights’ quickest player off the line.
“I’ve got good reactions. I just trained myself, once I hear that ‘hut,’ I release and explode,” said Josh, one of the team’s most boisterous cheerleaders in the huddle and on the sideline.
He is an effective blocker thanks to his large, well-defined upper body.
“He’s probably got the strongest upper body on the team,” said younger brother Rocky, the quarterback.
Josh’s strength and quickness are the result of his commitment to training. Each of the past two years, he has earned the Knights’ Mr. Football Award, given to the player who attends weight training and conditioning the most in the offseason.
“He always has contact with anybody he blocks,” said his grandfather, also Tempe Prep’s line coach. “He may not be able to hold a block as long, but he’s driving the guy back every time.”
The only thing Josh isn’t asked to do on the field is pull.
“He’s just too slow in that capacity,” Gary said.
Josh is not a starter, but he does get regular minutes. And he’s earned every one of them, his father said.
“He’s put on 15 pounds (since last season), and it’s just made a big difference,” Tommy said. “He’s played as much as any of our offensive linemen this season — which we didn’t expect — and he just keeps getting better. You’d be surprised when you see him walk around that he’s able to get the job done, but he does.”
When playing, Josh’s cerebral palsy is noticeable, but it’s not overly obvious. His gait nearly disappears when he runs, and although he winds up on the ground after almost every play because of his lack of balance, he’s quick to get up.
Josh has not only impressed his coaches, but has also earned the respect of his teammates.
“I think he’s just as good as all the other linemen,” DeJeu said.
“It’s remarkable,” Rocky added. “The whole team looks up to him. The whole school realizes what a great accomplishment it is for him to play any sport. And he’s a three-sport athlete.”
Josh is also a member of the school’s basketball team and throws the discus and shot put during track and field season.
And the more active he has been, the more he has been able to do.
“Sports have made him much more physically advanced than if he wouldn’t have played,” Melissa said.
A MIND FOR FOOTBALL
Josh’s success on the gridiron is also due in large part to his vast knowledge of the game.
A huge Cardinals fan — he cried after Chris Jacke kicked the field goal that put them in the playoffs in 1998 — Josh began correctly predicting the team’s plays around age 10. These days, he’s doing so for the opposition.
“He’s got a great mind for football,” Tommy said.
“He reminds me of what certain teams like to do in certain situations. He’s always been that way.”
Josh spends much of his free time watching film.
“I’ve watched every game I’ve ever played in like 10 times. This summer, I watched every game in TPA history.” he said.
And when he’s on the sidelines, he can almost always be found chatting up coaches, soaking up any information he can to use to his advantage.
His studying is preparing him for his future career.
“Most guys dream of being the player, but I know that’s out of the picture, so I want to be a coach,” he said.
When asked if he would like to take over for his father, Josh quickly replied, “Nah, I want to beat him one day.”
Given what he’s accomplished so far, don’t bet against him.
Josh is perfect against the odds and has refused to let any obstacle stand in his way.
“For him to be doing anything and not worrying about himself and thinking, ‘Why do I have disabilities?’ it’s great,” Rocky said.
“He’s an inspiration to everybody.”