OP teen allowed to play football during 5th year

Posted at 5:40 PM, Sep 01, 2016
and last updated 2016-09-03 13:32:09-04

A fifth-year Orchard Park High School student will be allowed to play with his team for his final year of high school.

The community rallied behind 18-year-old Jacob Kohler after the New York State Public High School Athletic Association (NYSPHSAA) denied Kohler the ability to play this year, saying he was only eligible from his freshman year to his fourth year.

But the family has since indicated that Kohler was physically, mentally and emotionally incapable of participating in sports during his first year in high school due to struggles with his autism. "It states in the rules and the bylaws a child in Jake's position is to be granted an extra year of eligibility. It's in the rule book," Jacob's dad, Scott Kohler explained.

When Kohler entered high school, he was only 4'6" tall and weighed just 72 pounds, registering in the first percentile for both height and weight. He had a hard time consuming enough calories in a day to function, had a delay in motor skills and a hard time interacting with others.

With the support of State Senator Tim Kennedy, an online petition to allow Kohler to play amassed more than 2,300 signatures in just a few short weeks.  The petition asked New York State Education Commissioner to MaryEllen Elia to allow Kohler to play, citing the NYSPHSAA bylaws.

The bylaws state a student's eligibility may be extended if it can be proven that "the pupil's failure to enter competition during one or more seasons of sport caused by illness or accident beyond the control of the student."

On Thursday, Commissioner Elia's office released the following statement announcing that Kohler would be eligible to play football during the 2016-17 school year.

“Pursuant to Education Law section 310 and 8 NYCRR section 276.1, the stay requested by petitioner in the above-captioned proceeding is hereby granted. Accordingly, respondents are directed to permit Jacob Kohler to participate as a member of the Orchard Park Central School District’s football team, pending an ultimate determination of the appeal herein.”

"I don't think anything has had more of a positive impact on my life than football has had," said Jacob. "Just, in terms of the social aspect, and in terms of just being healthy and being physical, nothing has helped me more."

Upon learning Kohler was granted permission, Senator Kennedy released the following statement:

“Words cannot truly do Jacob’s journey justice, but today’s decision from Commissioner Elia speaks volumes. This is a young man whose life has been changed by sports and by being part of a team, and who has flourished not only physically but academically since pursuing athletics.  By listening to the hundreds of people in Jacob’s corner and granting him a waiver to continue to play, the Commissioner has shown compassion and recognized this case for what it is: an opportunity to support and nurture the growth and successes of our students. As a Senator, as an occupational therapist, and most importantly as a father, I celebrate today’s news with the Kohlers, and look forward to seeing Jake back on the field where he deserves to be."

Orchard Park's first football game of the season will take place Friday night at home against Pittsford High School.