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This Track Team Gets What Winning is All About

Matt Funk saw the members of his boys track team whispering back and forth before the 100-meter race at the district’s meet and wondered what the heck was going on. The starter gun fired, and the runners took off. But they were all running slow, and Funk wondered even more what was going on.

Then he got it, and the crowd did, too, and the place went wild. Leading the race was freshman Devan Tadgerson-Mulder, who has cerebral palsy. His teammates in the race held back to let him win the heat.

When fans from both sides, coaches, officials and teammates saw what was happening, they were out of their seats, screaming, cheering and shedding a few tears.

“There wasn’t anyone not on their feet,” said Chad Ruger, the Thornapple Kellogg assistant track coach, who shed a few tears himself. “You couldn’t help it. It was just incredible. You heard this sound, and it kept getting louder. It was one of those moments.”

How did Devan feel when he won? “Happy,” he said. “Proud.”

The happy track star

No Doubts About It

Devan’s path to the track team was a feat in itself. The 16-year-old, who is the son of Brooke and Eric Schaefer, had surgery a year ago to straighten his legs. He put in hundreds of hours of physical therapy to advance from using a wheelchair when he started school to a walker and then braces. He still uses the braces to help him stand taller, but can walk without them.

Ruger said Devan found him on the first day of school and let the coach know he aimed to be on the track team, even though it was only September and he was still in the wheelchair.

“‘I’m going to be on the track team. I want to run fast,’ ” Ruger remembers Devan saying that first day. He told him again the second day, the third day and the rest of the school year until track season started.

By track season, Devan, who is a freshman in the special education for cognitively impaired students program at TK High School, had worked hard enough to be out of the wheelchair, walking with leg braces and most importantly — on the team.

When Devan was born, doctors told his parentshe might never walk or talk. Today, he not only walks, he’s a chatterbox, Brooke Schaefer said. Devan, who ran track in middle school, participated in about seven high school races, and he did it with his leg braces off. “I run faster” without them, he said.

Assistant track coach Chad Ruger and Devan

They Just Did It

The random act of kindness wasn’t planned until a few minutes before the race, which was why coach Funk didn’t know. Track team member Jacob Britten remembers when he realized Devan was running the next heat and that the rest of the runners were all from Thornapple Kellogg. He looked at his teammate Brian Chesnutt and said, “Are you thinking what I’m thinking?” Brian was, and it didn’t take any convincing to get their teammates to do what they were thinking — let Devan win.

“They all just went for it, which I thought was fantastic,” Brian said. “Devan worked so hard during the season, we all agreed he deserved it.”

Devan was surrounded by his teammates giving him high fives after the race, and the crowd’s applause kept going and going, Ruger said. “The cheers were not just for Devan,” he added. “They were for the guys, too. It was about being a team and not being selfish.”

Devan’s teammates had helped him throughout the season. Whenever he was in a race, the Thornapple Kellogg track members lined up to cheer him on. They also made sure he got to the starting line for his races and kept him focused on doing stretches. “At practices, his legs would start to hurt, so we ran next to him and kept him going,” Brian said.

“To his credit, he hung in there,” Ruger said. “The guys did a great job of keeping him on the stretch routine and workouts.”

“The team is cool and nice and kind,” Devan said.

The team learned about helping others, giving encouragement, better understanding students with different abilities — and something unexpected. “He really brought a sense of togetherness to the team,” Brian said.

The celebrity

Winning the race wasn’t Devan’s first time in the spotlight. He’s been featured in a Younkers TV ad and a Mary Free Bed Rehabilitation Hospital video, said his mother. He likes being a star.

“He got up about two o’clock in the morning,” Schaefer said of the day of the interview for this story. “I told him to go back to bed, but he got up again about 5:30.”

Heidi Prior, Devan’s teacher, said he worked doing physical therapy over the summer and during the school year. “He has made excellent progress, from needing his walker to walking unassisted.” she said. “His mom is just so thrilled TK is so behind having Devan on the track team. It’s been a dream of Devan’s to be on the team.”

Prior didn’t see the race, but she heard the buzz around school the next day. When she saw Devan he explained it very clearly to her: “I won! I won! I won!”

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Linda Odette
Linda Odette
Linda Odette is a freelance writer and editor with more than 30 years of experience in journalism. She’s worked primarily as an editor in feature departments at newspapers in West Michigan, including the Grand Rapids Press, the Muskegon Chronicle and the Holland Sentinel. She lives in East Grand Rapids near the Eastown edge, has a teenage son and a daughter in college. Read Linda's full bio or email Linda.


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