HERRIMAN — Sentinel: A soldier or guard whose job is to stand and keep watch.

In the first year of the Mountain Ridge Ute Conference football program, perhaps it’s appropriate that Sentinels is the new high school’s nickname. In memory of one youngster and as a way to help kids in the area who aren’t able to play because of medical challenges gain a wider network of support, a unique program is allowing them to be key parts of the various teams within the program.

As this sort of thing often goes, though, it’s not just those kids who are benefitting.

The story starts in 2011 as Brandi and Travis Jacobson were preparing to have their third child. During the 20-week ultrasound, it was discovered their son was missing his left hand and that there were bright spots on the abdomen and brain.

Leaving the hospital that day with the knowledge their son would have medical challenges (although they did not yet know the extent), the Jacobsons immediately determined that they would always find ways to make sure he was involved in sports and outdoor activities. Travis even remarked that their son would be able to hunt with a crossbow, something that at the time was only legal for people with disabilities.

“It was a part our lives and our planning for his life, just how would we make sure that he always felt like he was included in everything that we did and not allow those physical limitations to limit his involvement with the activities that we loved to do,” Travis said.

Tate Timothy Jacobson was born on Oct. 18, 2011, which itself left the Jacobsons grateful. Early on, medical personnel noticed the newborn showed signs consistent with Moebius syndrome, a very rare neurological condition in which weakness or paralysis of the facial muscles and missing limbs are common features. Tate was soon diagnosed with the syndrome.

Despite his challenges, Tate was very lively. He had a feeding tube and couldn’t crawl conventionally because of his missing hand, but he figured out how to scoot around, and he was surprisingly verbal for having facial paralysis. Then, without warning, Tate passed away on April 11, 2013. 

Travis and Brandi Jacobson, along with their children Lexi, Ali and Hunter, pose for a family photo, with Lexi and Hunter holding a photo of Tate Jacobson, who passed away on April 11, 2013. | Melinda May

On the night of April 10, he was restless and wouldn’t fall asleep. At about 2 in the morning on the 11th, a monitor alerted the Jacobsons that Tate had stopped breathing. With his crib just a few feet away from the Jacobsons’ bed, Travis began to administer CPR, 911 was called and Brandi rushed next door to summon a fireman. Despite swift efforts, the 18-month-old could not be resuscitated.

His death certificate notes he died of natural causes, and sudden infant death syndrome was the only explanation even though Tate was a toddler. Moebius syndrome is not a fatal condition.

“It just didn’t make sense to anyone because he was doing so well, and all of the sudden he was gone,” Brandi said.

She said she felt angry given everything the family had gone through during the pregnancy coupled with the fact Tate had been surpassing doctors’ expectations.

“We can handle a disability,” she recalled thinking. “We can handle living like that, but losing him, how do you handle that? That was not what we wanted at all.”

Fast-forward six years, and the Jacobsons were out to dinner last spring with Travis’ sister and brother-in-law, Heather and Allen Robins. The Robins’ 9-year-old son Porter has Mosaic Down syndrome, and the Robins said they were discussing the idea of home-schooling him once he reaches middle school because the environment can be difficult.

Travis thought about how he and his wife would have handled a similar situation with Tate, and Travis said their son Hunter’s (the couple also has daughters Lexi and Ali) football teammates would have known to look out for Tate at school.

The Jacobsons suggested that Porter could go to football practice with a boy named Jace who had befriended him. That way, he could get to know more kids who could watch out for him. 

Almost immediately, a bigger idea was sparked: What if they expanded this throughout the Mountain Ridge Ute Conference to include any child who is unable to play football because of medical reasons? The kids would become members of the teams and thus get to know their peers better.

“I thought, ‘What a great experience for these young boys to be able to help serve and befriend people that a lot of times they may not have the opportunity to.’ Football to me is way more than playing games on Saturday and practicing. It’s teaching these young men and women to be role models and examples in their community.” — Mountain Ridge Ute Conference league president Matt Fisher

Travis approached league president Matt Fisher with the idea. With tears in his eyes, Fisher agreed it needed to happen, and the Sentinels 12th Man program was launched.

Fisher loved the idea because a family friend who was disabled had recently died.

“I thought, ‘What a great experience for these young boys to be able to help serve and befriend people that a lot of times they may not have the opportunity to,’” Fisher said. “Football to me is way more than playing games on Saturday and practicing. It’s teaching these young men and women to be role models and examples in their community.”

On May 16, a notice on the conference’s Facebook page asking people to nominate kids who aren’t able to play to be a Sentinels 12th Man. Jerseys for the entire program had already been ordered for the fall season, but all of the No. 12s were removed and reserved, to be given to kids who have been designated as a 12th Man. Each one has his or her name embroidered on the back.

The Jacobsons have teamed up with Inclusion Cheer, a program started by Chelsea Lopez to give youngsters with special needs the chance to be cheerleaders. Currently about 30 kids are now designated as a 12th Man. 

Each 12th Man is involved with a given team (generally the one corresponding to their age) at various levels. One boy, 6-year-old Evan Allen, has become known as “Coach Evan.” Donning a “coaching shirt” and a whistle, he goes to practices during the week and puts players through their paces. 

On gamedays, he arrives wearing his coaching shirt and again gets players ready to go. Right before kickoff, he has his dad McKay help him change into his No. 12 jersey and he goes out onto the field to call the coin toss. During the games, he runs water to players during breaks.

Evan Allen, left, helps conduct a football practice of a Mountain Ridge Ute Conference team. | Photo provided by McKay Allen

“The coaches have just been so welcoming,” McKay said. “They let him participate in everything he wants to participate in. They don’t get annoyed with him. He’s still a 6-year-old boy so he’s in the way and he’s annoying, but they’re great with him.”

Matt Anderson, head coach of the team Evan Allen is involved with, said extending himself in this way has been a matter of putting himself in the youngster’s shoes.

“Every way that we can possibly include him in practice and in the games, the better,” Anderson said, adding that players always ask where Evan is when he isn’t at practice. “He’s around the kids and the team just rallied around him. They love it. They love him a lot.”

The scenario playing out on Anderson’s team isn’t an isolated situation, as throughout the league, the 12th Men are gaining a wider network of friends, and players are learning how to associate with kids who have some significant differences and who they might not otherwise gravitate toward.

“Some of the kids, they’re good kids, but they maybe have never approached Porter (in the past), and they’ve become his friends at school, during recess,” Heather Robins said of her son’s experience being around football players.

It’s going the other way, too. During Hunter Jacobson’s first game of the season, he injured his knee and had to head to the sideline to get it wrapped with ice. One of the first people to approach Hunter was Max Brown, a 12th Man who uses a wheelchair. Brown held Hunter’s hand and assured him everything would be OK.

Max Brown (12), right, holds the hand of Hunter Jacobson after Jacobson injured his knee during a game. | Photo provided by Brandi Jacobson

“Him talking to my son probably meant more than anyone else that day,” Brandi Jacobson said. “It was awesome.”

Still, Travis Jacobson and others feel the players are gaining more from the experience than the 12th Men are.

“Their strength is incredible and something that our football players have learned from them,” he said. “I think going into it, we were like, ‘This is a way the football players can help,’ but really, I think the football players are benefitting the most from it, just learning from our 12th Men.”