WALDOBORO — The Medomak Valley High School football team made quite an impact on the field this season as the Panthers claimed the school’s first regional championship and state final appearance.

And while the Panthers made a difference on the field, they did the same away from the gridiron as many of the team members established a longtime bond with one of their own.

Medomak Valley’s Landen Stewart, right, and Hayden Staples with the state Class C runner-up plaque on Nov. 19 in high school football in Bangor. Photo by Ken Waltz

Landen Stewart, a junior and one of the team’s managers, suffers from Fragile X syndrome, which is one of the leading genetic causes for autism. It is prevalent in developmental delays, learning disabilities and social and behavioral problems.

One in about 7,000 males and one in 11,000 females are diagnosed with the condition, according to cdc.gov.

“He can’t really process things,” said Landen’s father Jason Stewart, an assistant coach for the Panthers. “He can talk, but he can’t form full sentences. He can understand what you say sometimes, but you can’t really have a functional conversation with him.”

That notwithstanding, his impact on the Panthers — and, in turn, their impact on him — has been a touchdown for both sides.

“Landen’s been around the program basically all along,” said Panther head coach Ryan Snell, harkening back to the days when Medomak Valley was only at club status and not yet a varsity sport. “Once he got to high school, we wanted him to be a manager.”

While his freshman year in that capacity was significantly limited due to COVID-19, as a sophomore Landen made it to the sidelines as a manager alongside sister, Bailey, who at that time was a senior.

From left, Medomak Valley’s Tucker Holgerson, Isaac Simmons, Wyatt Simmons, Landen Stewart, Hayden Staples and Connor Light. Photo by Ken Waltz

“She was able to stay with him on the sidelines and keep track of him as he got used to being on the sidelines during the game,” said Snell.

While Bailey graduated in June — and no one seemingly able to keep an eye on Landen — a handful of the upperclassmen on the team, well, took the ball and ran with it.

“We’ve just always had him around,” said senior running back Hayden Staples. “He’s always got a good spirit going on. He’s always happy and cheerful. And he brings us all up after a long day of practice to see him. He puts us all in a good mood.”

“We kind of knew with [Bailey] leaving he’d probably feel a little more vulnerable and a little more lonely on the sidelines,” said senior left tackle Connor Light. “His dad can’t focus on him the whole time because he’s out there coaching. When one of us is stepping out or something we’ll go like stand over with him and talk with him a little bit. It keeps him involved.”

Medomak Valley’s Landen Stewart. Photo by Ken Waltz

Staples, Light and junior lineman/end Marshall Addy have known Landen since grade school. Addy and Light also played on the school’s Unified basketball team last spring with Landen. Light said the momentum from that “carried over into the football season and he kind of opened up to everybody else more too.”

“I feel like as a team we weren’t really as close [freshman year], but that’s also because of COVID and we didn’t have much going on except summer stuff,” said Addy. “Really last year when everything started to get going is when we really brought Landen into the team. And when the team really came together and merged.”

Staples and Landen also played on the same youth basketball team.

“He only really knew my name and he would always check the ball in for me when we were younger,” said Staples. “He would only throw it into me. He’s just always had a connection with me. I’ve grown up with him. [Then later in middle school] I’d always go down to help him in his class. I’d get out of class and we’d play basketball and stuff like that.”

Landen’s grandmother Carol Poulin said, over the years, Landen and Staples, in particular, have “taken a real shine to each other.”

“He’s responsible for my grandson having so much growth this year because of the football team,” she said. “They’ve just been fantastic with him. He’s taught them a lot too.”

And those strong bonds built by many of the Panther players with Landen have broken longstanding barriers.

“After the games they huddle,” said Poulin. “And Landen has always shied away from that kind of contact. And Hayden was able to get him to come into the middle of the huddle and join in with them.”

Hayden first asked coach Jason about inviting Landen into the huddle during a preseason game at Madison.

“He was all for it,” said Jason of his son. “I asked Landen if he wanted to and he kind of just walked over with me and brought him into the huddle. He’s in the middle and we’d be talking and he’d just be sitting there with his hand up, getting ready to break the huddle with us.”

“Hayden had him lead the breakout chant that they do,” said Snell. “It was the start of something that really took off.”

“That was the first time he’d done that,” said Jason. “And that speaks volumes on how much he’s been picking up on things. The last two years he’s just blossomed. That’s been the biggest part of it for us.”

“He’s made quite a hit this year,” said Poulin. “Whenever an autistic child makes what we might call an ordinary, everyday thing … when it happens, it’s a big deal. And he has come so far this year. He even made honor roll this term and I think the football team has an awful lot to do with it. He’s come out of his shell quite a bit.”

Addy called Landen, who also loves the bus ride to road games and always takes the first seat next to the bus driver, “a great motivator” for the team.

“He’s on the sideline rooting for us,” Addy said. “Or this year we’ve had him placing the ball before the game when we were doing our plays before the game. He’s always there, having a good time. He’s a morale booster for us. It was great for him and he’s great for us.”

The Panthers brought Landen out for the opening toss of the team’s regional championship game against Hermon at Hampden Academy.

After the team’s 40-20 win, Staples could think of no one better to receive the school’s first regional championship football plaque.

“If one person was going to take it, I felt like he deserved to get it,” Staples said. “So it wasn’t just one singular player. If it was going to be just one, it should be Landen to stand out and hold that plaque up. It meant more to all of us to see him with that.”

“We’ll get our time with the plaque and be able to show it,” Addy said. “But to really let him do that, it really shows how we are as people.”

“It was one of the highlights of the year just knowing that they get it and they ultimately understand what this whole thing is about,” said Snell. “Football is just a small part of that big picture, and they get it. And that’s been pretty cool to see.”

While Landen had to be coached a bit in the moment about what to do with the plaque once he received it, he needed no such instruction after the team collected its state runner-up plaque a week later.

“Once he understood, ‘Oh the crowd’s cheering every time I hold it up,’ after the state game, he needed no prompting whatsoever,” said his dad. “He knew exactly what he had to do with the plaque. He turned to the crowd and held it up. And when he brought it down the crowd stopped cheering. And he put it back up and the crowd started cheering again. That was priceless.”

A few weeks prior, Medomak Valley defeated Hermon 14-12 in a muddy regular-season game in Waldoboro with first place in Class C North on the line. After the game, a Hermon player went out of his way to track Landen down — who opted not to participate in the postgame handshake — for a fist bump.

The entire Hawk team followed. The moment gained a lot of traction on the Maine High School Football page on Facebook as a story of the encounter was shared hundreds of time on the social media website.

“[Hermon coach] Kyle [Gallant’s] guys had the mindset to realize Landen was off to the side there kind of and the first guy went up to give him a fist bump and then the next guy and so on and the whole team did it,” said Snell. “It was a huge thing. And It spreads that message and awareness on autism and knowing the Landen’s part of our team.”

Snell said while Landen basically was non-verbal in his early years, “his vocabulary and things he says have grown immensely” in his two years as a manager.

“He mimics a lot of the things the guys do and it has grown his vocabulary quite a bit,” said Snell.

“He’s gotten a lot better with all that stuff,” said Light. “You usually know what he’s thinking, what he’s doing or how he’s feeling. He’s pretty good at conveying it. He has a pretty good understanding of football and what’s going on out there. I think we should get him involved as much as we get anyone else involved.”

“The way those kids treated Landen, the rest of the team saw that and they all just took him under their wing,” said Jason. “As far as a dad and my wife, seeing how the kids have been treating him? You can’t ask for any more than that. To have kids treat your son normal and make him part of a team is pretty special.”

“We’ve learned more from him then he has from us,” Snell said. “About acceptance and spreading the message of autism awareness. We’re lucky to have him and lucky to get to experience seeing what the guys have done and grown from. It’s been huge for them as well.”

Addy and Landen will be seniors on next year’s team. And Addy said his hope is things continue on the same trajectory next season. On the field and off.

“[Landen’s] important to the team just like any other player, any other manager or any other coach,” Addy said. “It’s helped grow us into men. It really showed who we are.”