It’s a big day at the Ackerman Compound. My San Francisco 49ers are playing the Baltimore Ravens in the Super Bowl and I’ll be watching the game with my son.
I’ve been a huge 49er fan pretty much since my parents bought me a plastic helmet for Christmas when I was maybe 8 years old and living in San Francisco.
I wore it for maybe two straight weeks, until it cracked in half when I fell off my bike. I’d get a real (autographed) 49er helmet much later in life when I had the chance to land press passes that gained me access to the field, locker rooms and free, pregame buffet line at Candlestick Park.
You get a much greater appreciation for the speed and violence of professional football when you are just a few feet away from the action.
What makes this game so special has nothing to do with the 49ers or the biggest game of the year. My son, Luke, is 20 and this is the first time we’ll be watching any sporting event together.
Luke is autistic. By now most of you have probably heard about autism because one in every 88 children (one in 54 boys) is born with some form of autism.
Luke was diagnosed when he was in kindergarten, after a teacher told us he was no longer welcome in her classroom. We’ve come a long way in the last 20 years in terms of understanding autism, so I’ve forgiven that teacher’s insensitivity.
Without getting into the details of autism — and there are many levels along the autism “spectrum” — Luke is special. When he was maybe 6 he could draw the flag of every nation in the world (do you know what the flag for Estonia looks like?).
By the time he was 7 he could tell you anything you wanted to know about the Titanic (do you know how many rivets it took to build it?). By the time he was 8 he could identify most any skyscraper or bridge you showed him and tell you when it was built. He knows who George B. McClellan was and why he lost to Lincoln in the 1864 presidential election.
Up until recently, Luke couldn’t care less about football, or baseball, or any other sporting event, for that matter. And that’s been a bummer because I am a huge sports fan. When Luke was born I thought I finally had a future Little League star and couldn’t wait to teach him to catch, hit and run. I thought we’d sit side by side at Giants’ games, rooting against the “Damned Dodgers,” as my own father referred to the evil fellows from L.A. (I hate the Dodgers to this day).
When Luke was diagnosed with autism I had my very own pity party.
I’d be sitting inside a Barnes & Noble bookstore on a summer day — as Luke ran from aisle to aisle soaking up the knowledge — wishing I were coaching his ballgame instead.
Then I started to appreciate his gifts. And, yes, there are many gifts along the autism spectrum. If you want to know the mind’s capacity, read up on a fellow named Kim Peek, who was the inspiration for the movie “Rain Man,” starring Tom Cruise and Dustin Hoffman. Luke and I had a chance to meet with Peek when he spoke at a holiday event in Northern California.
If he’d been through your town there was a good chance Peek read the phone book and could recall any name and number inside it. He can read both pages of a book simultaneously (one eye on each page) and recall every word. He had, some scientists believe, discovered a new side of the human brain.
Luke’s new interest in football has more to do with geography than blocking and tackling. He asked me a few weeks ago why a city the size of Los Angeles didn’t have a football team.
He has a pretty good handle on population shifts (don’t get him started on the Electoral College) and assumes there is logic to the National Football League.
He also wondered why the Kansas City Chiefs were in the “West” conference with Oakland and San Diego when Kansas City is located more than 1,300 miles to the east. I told him it was more about marketing, an area that is too abstract for a logical mind to really understand.
He also likes statistics and dates, the foundation of most all sports. “The 49ers have a chance to win their sixth Super Bowl, tying the Pittsburgh Steelers for the most,” he reminded me. “The last time they won was 1995 against the San Diego Chargers.”
Luke has some work to do before he understands the fundamentals of football, but that doesn’t matter. What matters — at least to me — is that we’ll be watching the game together and it’s something I’ve been waiting to do since Washington beat Buffalo 37-24 in Super Bowl XXVI (I’ll let you do the math on that one).
Jeff Ackerman is publisher of The News-Review. He can be reached at 541-957-4263 or firstname.lastname@example.org.