ATWATER — Mention last week's football game to Alex Zapien and the smile doesn't disappear from his face.
The Atwater freshman has never strapped on shoulder pads or buttoned a chin strap. He's never scored a touchdown.
However, last week, he was a member of the Atwater freshmen football team.
Alex was named an honorary captain for the Falcons' Oct. 4 game against Golden Valley.
Alex, who has cerebral palsy and has been in a wheelchair since he was 3 years old, led the team out of the inflatable tunnel before the game and took part in the coin toss.
The 14-year-old watched the game from the sideline wearing his No. 38 blue jersey.
"It was pretty cool," Alex said. "The best part was leading the team out of the tunnel."
It was a day to remember for Alex. He was given a jersey to wear to school Thursdays and Fridays, the same as the rest of the team.
He got to eat pizza at lunch with the team and was given a game ball signed by the players and coaches after Atwater's 29-0 victory in the game.
"Being a freshman and new to the school, the team felt it would be nice to include Alex in something he would never be able to do on his own," said Atwater varsity head coach Bob Valladao.
Freshmen coach Nathan Ramirez approached the team with the idea of making Alex an honorary captain, and they were all for it.
They treated him as a teammate.
"I brought it up to the team and they were excited," said Ramirez, whose team is 4-1 overall and 1-0 in Central California Conference play. "They rallied around him. I thought it would be good for him and the team."
Merced head coach Rob Scheidt had a similar experience in his program with Roman Alvarez.
Though he uses a wheelchair, Alvarez, a junior, has acted as a team manager of sorts for the past three seasons. He has attended almost every game, practice and lunchtime meeting in Scheidt's classroom.
Alvarez had two cousins who played for the Bears: Eric DeAnda and Joaquin DeAnda.
"I talked to his family his freshman year, and they knew he couldn't play, but they wanted him to be a part of the team," Scheidt said.
"We've done what we can to make him a part of the program," Scheidt added. "It's been a great experience for everyone."
Alex's time with the Falcons isn't over.
He was invited to be with the team during the homecoming parade Friday morning. Atwater will play Pitman High that night.
"I think he was really excited," Alex's mother, Gloria, said. "He was happy to participate in something like that."
Shawn Jansen is a Sun-Star sports reporter. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (209) 385-2462.