First Posted: 10/16/2014
Justin Olenginski knows the sounds of a football game well.
Cheers from the crowd. The cannon blast after a Dallas score. The public address announcer’s voice.
Blind since birth, Justin uses those sounds through the years to take in his older brother Mike’s football games.
The 15-year-old freshman heard those sounds in a different way during halftime Oct. 11 when Dallas played Wyoming Area in the first home night football game ever at Mountaineer Stadium.
The name being called over the public address system and hollered by fans was his and the cannon blast and fireworks were in recognition of him carrying the ball across the goal line.
Mike lifted his little brother into the air and Justin was surrounded by players from both teams who joined the crowd in cheering for the completion of his ceremonial play.
Additional physical obstacles with which Justin was born meant multiple medical procedures and years of therapy in order for him to walk at all as a young boy – he took his first steps as a 4-year-old – and improve his mobility as a teenager.
“Early on, he had a lot of adversity with his walking,” said Dr. Michael Olenginski, Justin’s father. “He had to go through multiple procedures and one fairly major surgery to give him some stability with walking.”
With help from Wyoming Area, its Wyoming Valley Conference rival, Dallas was able to find a way to include the special needs student in an emotional evening.
Justin joined his brother, a Dallas senior, and three teammates as captains for the pre-game coin toss. Then, before starting the second half, the teams lined up at the 5-yard line for Justin to run a play in which he took a handoff from quarterback Matt Harrison.
Offering the same loving support that he showed in taking his younger brother to his first middle school dance, Mike provided guidance as Justin made his way into the end zone.
A video of the play had more than 1,000 views on You Tube as of early Thursday morning and word of Justin’s special night spread nationally through ABC News.
“Justin always went to Mike’s youth football games and all of his high school football games,” Micheal said. “He’d hear the cannons go off every time a touchdown was scored. He used to always say he’d love to run a touchdown in.
“With Mike being a senior this year, I thought it would be a great time to see if he could run a touchdown in somehow.”
Michael approached Dallas Gridiron Club president Dave Simpson with the idea. Simpson was receptive and another club representative, Bonnie Mannello, handled many of the arrangements.
“She ran with it from there and really did a phenomenal job in making this thing what it was on Saturday,” Michael said.
Dallas coach Bob Zaruta worked Justin into practice the day before the game and Wyoming Area coach Randy Spencer graciously accepted a request for his team to join in the arrangements.
All that was left was for Justin to take the field on game night.
Dallas and Wyoming Area players took a breather from an intense battle that was not decided until the Warriors scored on a fake field goal in the final minute for a 17-10 victory. They gathered near one end zone to give another youngster a chance to share – for a moment – what it’s like to be on the field and be cheered by the crowd.
“Everything worked out great,” Mike said. “Wyoming Area and their coaches allowed it to happen. That was cool of them. “They did an awesome job of letting go of our rivalry and helping out someone who doesn’t normally get the opportunity to be on the field.”
Mike’s teammates had known Justin for years and their opponents that night seemed to quickly grasp the magnitude of the event.
“All through the years of youth football, the kids that Mike played with and his circle of friends had been with Justin and were supportive,” Michael said. “I really want to stress that the students of the Dallas School District have really gone far beyond what you would ever expect them to do with a special needs kid.
“They’ve opened their arms and included him in all their activities. They always try to interact with him. It is something that is so good to see as a parent. It warms your heart to see that.”
The Warriors appreciated their role as well.
“It certainly resonated with our guys,” Spencer said. “They connected with it. It was certainly special for Justin, his brother and his family.
“Those are the types of experiences you want to have for your kids and your program. We were just fortunate to be a part of it.”
Justin has overcome pain, including the aftermath of a surgery to lengthen his Achilles tendons, in the process of improving his walking ability.
“Every challenge he has ever faced, he has come through with flying colors every time,” Michael said. “It is that determination and courage that really define him.”
And that’s why Michael and his wife Angela and their other children, 20-year-old Misericordia University junior Danielle, 18-year-old Mike, and 13-year-old eighth-grader Gabrielle wanted a special night for Justin.
“What he has taught us in his 15 years is more than we could have experienced in life,” Michael said. “That’s why we tried to make a special day for him. We tried to give back to him the things he has given us.”
A family’s hopes were realized in a short, but meaningful, walk into the end zone.
“The fireworks, the excitement of a crowded stadium, all of Justin’s family and friends were there to see it,” Michael said. “The atmosphere couldn’t have been better.”