A Michigan Coach Boosts Spirits of a Mother with Cancer

By Derek Smith, FNF Coaches Contributor

A Michigan coach rewarded a special needs manager with a touchdown as his mother fighting cancer saw her son scamper down the field in front of cheering fans from two rival schools.

It shouldn’t come as any surprise to anyone who knows Jeff Burnside that he helped make a young boy’s dreams come true and gave a mother a gift she’ll never forget.

Burnside, head coach at Novi (Mi.), High School, went to great lengths to recognize a water boy on his team with Down’s syndrome for his contributions to the program.

And, in turn, thanked the teen’s mom for bringing the young man in the team’s life.

Robby Heil, a senior special needs student at Novi, began serving as the school’s “hydration engineer” in his freshman year.

Last season, Burnside, 40, sent Heil into a game versus South Lyon East, telling him to take a handoff and run to the end zone where he scored a “touchdown” while his mother, Debbie, who is battling cancer, cheered from the sidelines as her son became the star of the game for a few minutes.

“Coach Burnside wanted to make this happen and he was able to talk to South Lyon East (coach Joe Pesci) and make this happen,” Debbie Heil, told The Detroit News after the game. “(Robby) feels like he’s a part of the team.”

The moment left many at the game, including Burnside, a native of Lapeer, Mi., in tears and earned him much respect from fans, coaching colleagues and special needs advocates across the country.

“It was pretty cool,” Burnside said. “It was even more emotional than I expected.”

Heil came to the team as a ninth-grader after Debbie, a team photographer, emailed Burnside looking to get Robby involved in a team sport at the school.

Burnside didn’t have to think twice about making Heil a manager on the team.

“I was like, heck yeah, we’ll do it,” he said. “It wasn’t even a second thought. I knew it would be great.”

Burnside had worked as a YMCA counselor at the University of Michigan and became interested in education and coaching.

“I realized right then and there I wanted to work with kids,” he said. “It was never something I looked to do. I’ve always said coaching is a calling, not a profession.”

Burnside thought about putting Robby on the field for several years and finally decided to design a play for him at the first home game back in school in 2016.

“It popped into my mind probably after his second or third year,” he said. “I thought it would be kind of a cool deal to get him one play for all the work he’d done for us.”

He called the opposing coach to set it up and ran the play, “Shark Pepsi,” a run-pass option, in practice leading up to Friday night.

The event was publicized on Twitter Wednesday before the game, and by Thursday, the school was buzzing.

A local television anchor with a child at Novi got wind of it, and word spread among the broadcast and print media who documented the touchdown as it happened.

Heil was named Homecoming King later in the season.