HOBBTON, N.C. – The North Carolina High School Athletic Association (NCHSAA) was taking heat Wednesday for barring a 19-year-old student with Down syndrome from suiting up with his beloved football team due to the association's age restrictions.
Brett Bowden, a junior at Hobbton High School in Newton Grove, N.C., has spent the last two seasons donning pads for the Wildcats, but the NCHSAA has said Bowden can no longer participate in practices or games as a member of the team.
"Brett don't see that he has Down syndrome," Bowden's mother, Pat Bowden, told WWAY-TV. "Brett wants just to be one of those guys, out there dressed, thinking that he is a football player, feeling like he's a football player."
Bowden has led the Hobbton football team onto the field for the last two years and even scored a touchdown in one of the Wildcats' games, according to WWAY.
"Brett means the world to me, I promise you. He's my inspiration," one Hobbton player told WWAY. "When I come on Friday nights and he leads us out the tunnel, that's telling me that it's time for me to play and do what I got to do… for him."
The Hobbton community has come out in support of Bowden, with his younger sister Taylor Bowden helping organize a "Let Brett Bowden Play" Facebook page that has drawn 18,000 supporters as of Wednesday.
The NCHSAA has expressed its "understanding" for the community's reaction, but insists nothing can be done to bend the rules in Bowden's case. The association said Bowden can wear a jersey and stand on the sidelines, but that has not been viewed as consolation for how much the team means to Bowden.
"Telling Brett you can no longer be a team player -- you can only wear a jersey on the sideline. He's going to wonder, 'What have I done wrong to deserve this? Why can't I play?'" Bowden's mother said.