Taylor Lentz once hated gymnasiums.
"I wasn't comfortable with all that noise," the 17-year-old Beyer High School junior said.
Nor was he particularly fond of crowds, large or small. In fact, he rarely mingled with other kids or participated in any group activities.
"He's a gamer," said mom Beth Lentz. "What teenager doesn't game on Xbox 360 or PlayStation? But he was not a social person."
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That began to change last summer when the gangly 6-foot-5 lad decided to play football. Football? Yes, football, the team sport in which people recklessly smash into each other, gang tackle, huddle and rely on talking to each other. Basically, all those little social things Lentz had avoided throughout his life.
Yet it became the perfect vehicle for a young man who suffers slightly from autism, a neural disorder that impairs a person's ability to interact socially and communicate with others. Football has helped him break down his social inhibitions, taken him into the end zone, onto YouTube and beyond.
"You're talking about a kid who has come out of his shell," Beth Lentz said. "He's more outgoing now, more willing to take chances and communicating better than ever."
He's a solid B student, but tended to be a loner. He shied away from friendships or even normal banter with other kids. He'd tried contact sports such as wrestling and karate, and played soccer when he was much younger, but never stuck with them.
"I hate to tell you, but I wasn't that physical back then," Lentz said.
Thus, his newfound desire to play football — arguably the most physical of high school sports — caught his parents by surprise.
"My comment was, 'Being a spectator is not a bad thing,' " Beth Lentz said.
But then she remembered they have long told him: "Don't ever let anybody tell you that you can't do something."
Well, except riding his bike on one of Modesto's busier streets to get to the summer passing league games.
Beth and Roger Lentz both work.
See video of touchdown. Story continues below video
"We told him, 'You want to do this, great, but it's all on you,' " Beth Lentz said.
"He said, 'I'll just go right down Pelandale Road.' We told him, 'You'll be a hood ornament.' We had to map out a route and tell him how to get there (safely)."
They did, and he did. During summer weight- training sessions and the passing league, the Beyer players brought him into their fold and his metamorphosis began.
"As a senior, I had kids over to the house over the summer," said John Severe, son of Beyer head coach Doug Severe. "(Lentz) didn't talk very much at the beginning."
After the passing league games, the players would converge on the Severe home to swim, play video games and hang out.
"He takes his Madden seriously," John Severe said. "I was talking a lot of smack and I beat him the first time we played. He said, 'You're lucky.' Ever since then, he's beaten me, and he'll say, 'Watch out, I'll beat you in Madden.' It's really opened him up."
"We'd eat and pray," Lentz said. "I'd never prayed before dinner before."
"We're a really spiritual family," John Severe said. "When we prayed, he asked, 'What are you doing?' I told him, 'Before each meal, we ask for a blessing.' He said, 'Can I try?' Now he prays over his food."
His instructors at Beyer noticed a different Taylor Lentz, too. He spends two periods each day with Leann Jones Cruz, who teaches special day courses for the learning- handicapped. She's noticed a more outgoing young man this year, which she attributes to his joining the football program.
"It's changed his life," she said. "I'm really proud of the football team for the way they've taken him under their wing. He's really developed his social skills, being with the team."
She sees a bounce in his step and confidence written all over his face.
"He's the morning coffee," she said. "He'll say what's on his mind. There's no filter."
On the field, he's gone from a shy player overwhelmed by the game itself to simply being one of the guys. He even goes — willingly — to pep rallies in the school's gym.
"He's progressed so much," Doug Severe said. "When we would break — 'One-two-three-Beyer!' — he didn't know what to do. Now, he gives the break (at the end of practice.)"
Still, it took weeks before Severe felt comfortable putting Lentz into a game. He got in for a couple of downs at defensive back in a 49-7 loss to unbeaten Tracy in Week 5. Then, two weeks later, with Beyer trailing Downey 42-19 in the fourth quarter, he entered the game as a wide receiver.
"We tried to throw to him, but the outside linebacker picked it and returned it for a touchdown," Severe said.
On their next possession, and after a quick conference with Downey Coach Jeremy Plaa, Severe sent Lentz back onto the field, this time at running back.
He took a handoff and swept around right end.
"I thought I was going to get tackled," Lentz said.
Instead, he loped 65 yards for a touchdown. His teammates congratulated him. Some of the Downey players said, "Good job."
"The refs don't give you a high-five," Lentz said. "One of the refs gave me a high- five."
Someone from Downey videotaped the game, and Plaa posted the view from an end zone camera online.
"How'd I get on YouTube?" Lentz wondered.
The following Monday at school, this once shy, inhibited young man gained a couple of nicknames.
"We're calling him 'Secret-Weapon Lentz' and 'The Lentzinator,' " Cruz said.
"He told the running backs' coach, 'I need to get more reps,' " Severe said.
Thus, the teenager who once shunned crowds and noise and other people is now one of them.
"I've made lots of friends on the football team," said Lentz, who plans to play next year as well. "And I'm thinking about playing basketball, too."
Gymnasiums, as it turns out, are OK places after all.
Jeff Jardine's column appears Sundays, Tuesdays and Thursdays in Local News. He can be reached at 578-2383 or firstname.lastname@example.org