Mill­wood’s An­twine ready for next step

Mill­wood de­fen­sive tackle Is­rael An­twine will not let autism keep him from reach­ing his goal of play­ing col­lege foot­ball.

The Oklahoman - - RED RIVER EXTRA - BY ADAM KEMP Staff Writer

Crum­pled and yel­low­ing, the note­book pa­per taped to the walls of Is­rael An­twine’s room could be the thoughts of just about any high school kid.

As­pi­ra­tions to earn a col­lege schol­ar­ship, dreams of be­ing named a cap­tain on the foot­ball team and the per­fect plan to land a dream girl­friend are spelled out in large loop­ing hand­writ­ing that spans across more than a half-dozen pages.

Is­rael’s lists not only plot out his ideal life, but also the mantra he’s come to live by.

I am ex­plo­sive. I am the strong­est. I am pow­er­ful.

Th­ese are the words he says ev­ery night be­fore go­ing to sleep, be­fore he slips on a huge, sil­ver cross neck­lace and tucks his size 17 shoes un­der his desk.

“As I say this night by night, my mind starts to process what I’m say­ing,” An­twine says look­ing at his wall of writ­ings.

“It helps you fo­cus on your goals.” Is­rael’s dad Dwayne chimes in.

“Yeah. This helps me fo­cus on my goals so that they will come true,” Is­rael fin­ishes.

Many of th­ese goals have long since been ac­com­plished as Is­rael has starred on the de­fen­sive line for Mill­wood High School for the past three sea­sons, but a few are just now about to be crossed off.

This Sun­day, Is­rael will an­nounce where he plans to play foot­ball in col­lege. The 6-foot-4, 295pound de­fen­sive tackle is in high de­mand, a three­star re­cruit with of­fers from blue blood pro­grams around the coun­try.

Is­rael will choose between Colorado and Ok­la­homa State on Sun­day and he says he feels ready to take the next step. For Is­rael’s fa­ther Dwayne, he feels like a ner­vous wreck.

He watches his son with a keen eye, al­ways

ready to jump in with a prompt to get him talk­ing or ad­vice about what he should do in a spe­cific sit­u­a­tion.

“Is­rael is a bit dif­fer­ent,” Dwayne, 51, says. “He’s re­ally not your typ­i­cal teenager.” Is­rael has autism. More than 3.5 mil­lion Amer­i­cans have the com­plex de­vel­op­men­tal con­di­tion. Ex­perts es­ti­mate that 1 in 68 kids are born with symp­toms on the autism spec­trum. That num­ber is even greater in boys.

Is­rael is con­sid­ered to be high func­tion­ing on the spec­trum. He has good grades in school tak­ing a reg­u­lar slate of cour­ses and isn’t over­whelmed with crowds or loud, wild en­vi­ron­ments.

Where Is­rael’s autism man­i­fests is in so­cial sit­u­a­tions, when his locke­don-fo­cus can some­times make him seem checked out or un­in­ter­ested.

But Is­rael is al­ways lis­ten­ing. He is al­ways pay­ing at­ten­tion to his sur­round­ings and hy­per­aware that you might see him dif­fer­ently.

“Any­body ask­ing me ques­tions about my­self and who I am, I’m all right with that,” Is­rael says. •••

Grow­ing up, there were few car­toons at the An­twine house. In­stead, Is­rael watched Billy Blanks Tae Bo tapes as his morn­ing en­ter­tain­ment.

There was some­thing about the rhythm and move­ment of the work­outs that soothed him.

Even as a tod­dler, Is­rael was a big boy. Some­times strangers would mis­take him for be­ing twice his age and com­ment to Dwayne that he was too old to be act­ing like a baby, cry­ing in pub­lic and yelling for what he wanted.

“He’s three,” Dwayne would say then to end the un­prompted com­ments. “He’s just doesn’t look it.”

But soon Dwayne and Is­rael’s mother, Car­mencita McCon­nell, no­ticed he was hav­ing a hard time ad­just­ing around kids his own age. Is­rael of­ten felt like he was be­ing teased or picked on when in a large group set­ting.

“Some­thing would hap­pen or some­one would be sar­cas­tic and tell a joke that caused ev­ery­body to laugh,” Dwayne said. “If Is­rael didn’t catch it, he thought they were laugh­ing at him.”

And when Is­rael feels like he’s be­ing teased, he be­gins to get up­set.

An­other core el­e­ment of autism is when so­cial dif­fi­cul­ties lead to feel­ings of frus­tra­tion, con­fu­sion and anx­i­ety which re­sult in re­sponses like ag­gres­sion, ac­cord­ing to autism Speaks, a autism ad­vo­cacy or­ga­ni­za­tion.

While the rate of autism in the U.S. is on the rise, very lit­tle is still known about how the con­di­tion de­vel­ops.

Ex­perts say the stigma sur­round­ing autism can cause par­ents to shy away from seek­ing a di­ag­no­sis or treat­ment for their child.

Dwayne was de­ter­mined to learn all he could to help give his son a bet­ter life.

As Is­rael got older, the need for an out­let for his phys­i­cal­ity be­came more ap­par­ent to Dwayne. Is­rael fought back when picked on and that of­ten meant Dwayne needed to pay for a few den­tist bills or doc­tor vis­its of other kids.

“When he re­tal­i­ates in a sit­u­a­tion, it never looks just,” Dwayne says. “He’s so much big­ger and stronger than ev­ery­one else that it was dan­ger­ous some­times.”

By the time Is­rael started mid­dle school, the two were hit­ting the gym ev­ery day to try and burn off any penned up feel­ings Is­rael was hid­ing.

They de­vel­oped a check-in sys­tem where Dwayne would look at Is­rael to see how things were go­ing in a given sit­u­a­tion.

“Any­body bug­ging you right now?” Dwayne would ask. “I need to know who’s get­ting on his nerves so I can help him through it.”

Autism ex­perts stress the im­por­tance of find­ing ac­tiv­i­ties to stim­u­late a child with ag­gres­sive ten­den­cies.

Stud­ies show that chil­dren who show high lev­els of phys­i­cal ag­gres­sion dur­ing the ele­men­tary school years are at great­est risk of phys­i­cal vi­o­lence dur­ing ado­les­cence and adult­hood.

Dwayne wanted to find a way to chan­nel Is­rael's ag­gres­sion.

•••

Start­ing at the age of 5, Is­rael started play­ing foot­ball. Pee Wee coaches al­ways ques­tioned his age, telling Dwayne there was no way he was as a young as he said.

Dwayne and McCon­nell di­vorced while Is­rael was still in ele­men­tary school. While the two

shared cus­tody, Dwayne took the more ac­tive role in Is­rael's life when it came to deal­ing with his autism and foot­ball.

Be­fore Is­rael’s fresh­man sea­son, Dwayne moved to a house near Mill­wood High School. There he would try out and make the team to play for coach Dar­win Franklin.

Franklin said the first thing he no­ticed about Izzy, as he's known by his team­mates and coaches, was how his de­meanor changed from the laid back kid off the field, to all busi­ness once the pads went on.

"He is an ab­so­lute plea­sure off the field," Franklin said. "Once he straps it up, he's a beast."

One thing that ev­ery­body around Is­rael talks about is his in­ten­sity on the field. Start­ing from the about an hour be­fore kick­off, the change in Is­rael is strik­ing.

“If you want some­one that will sing and dance to fire up the team, that’s not Is­rael,” Dwayne says. “You want some­one who’s gonna play? He’s your guy.”

His smile fades, he be­gins to bounce on the balls of his feet in an­tic­i­pa­tion and when it comes time to hit peo­ple, he un­leashes.

“I like go­ing up against two guys in­stead of just one usu­ally,” Is­rael says. “Makes me feel un­stop­pable.”

Franklin says it took awhile for Is­rael to fit in with his team­mates. His quiet de­meanor off the field was some­times at odds with of­ten rau­cous en­vi­ron­ment of a high school foot­ball locker room.

“Izzy has such a quiet de­meanor but he is ab­so­lutely in­tense on the field,” Franklin said. “It took some time to de­velop some trust with us as coaches that we have his son’s best in­ter­est at heart.”

•••

Where Is­rael is most com­fort­able is in his week­end trips to the movie the­ater. If you can think of an ac­tion movie that’s come out in the past decade, chances are Is­rael not only knows it but can re­cap it for you.

He’s de­vel­oped a fond­ness for comic book movies es­pe­cially. He loves watch­ing the su­per­heroes of Mar­vel and DC do bat­tle, good vs. evil.

Is­rael's fa­vorite su­per­hero is The Hulk, the gi­gan­tic green rage mon­ster who is a nor­mal man un­til pro­voked. He says he iden­ti­fies with the char­ac­ter.

But if truth be told, Is­rael might ac­tu­ally iden­tify more with The Hulk’s coun­ter­part, Bruce Ban­ner, the man who con­stantly bat­tles with his feel­ings and tries to chan­nel the frus­tra­tion he feels within to do good.

“Foot­ball has def­i­nitely helped me take most of my anger out on the field,” Is­rael says. “I get to let all of my anger out that I've been just hold­ing in and that re­ally is a game changer.”

Dwayne adds that Is­rael is a hap­pier per­son now.

“You used to need that anger to play well, re­mem­ber?” Dwayne asks.

“Yeah, but now I’m more fo­cused,” Is­rael says nod­ding his head. “Now I can just play an­gry in­stead of ac­tu­ally be­ing an­gry.”

Is­rael’s size and speed has at­tracted coaches from all over the coun­try. He orig­i­nally com­mit­ted to Ole Miss, but af­ter the con­tro­versy sur­round­ing the de­par­ture of head coach Hugh Freeze, Is­rael de­cided to look else­where.

Dwayne said he's con­cerned about whether or not the pro­gram Is­rael chooses will be ac­com­mo­dat­ing of his autism.

He’s strug­gled with whether to be up front with schools about it, for fear that coaches would sud­denly stop show­ing in­ter­est.

“We know of a cou­ple schools who aren’t in­ter­ested be­cause of the autism,” Dwayne said. “I love my son and I want the best for him. So those schools ob­vi­ously weren’t the right place for him.”

•••

The sac­ri­fices Dwayne has made to make life as nor­mal as pos­si­ble for Is­rael can’t be un­der­stated.

He works odd hours flip­ping houses so he can be avail­able to help Is­rael train and to be there at prac­tice and games.

And he is pre­pared to move out of the state should Is­rael pick a school out­side of Ok­la­homa.

“My son is the most im­por­tant per­son to me,” Dwayne says as he watches Is­rael dur­ing a re­cent Mill­wood prac­tice. “It’s been an in­cred­i­bly long jour­ney. But I love that kid more than any­thing.”

Is­rael is grate­ful for the early morn­ing work­outs and the late-night talks, the ad­vice about not only foot­ball but life, school and girls.

“It’s be­cause he loves and cares for me,” Is­rael says. “He’s been there ev­ery step of the way.”

When pick­ing his schools, Dwayne asked Is­rael to make an­other list to pin to his wall.

This list should in­clude ex­actly what he wants out of col­lege.

Here is Is­rael’s list: 1. As­sis­tance in get­ting to the NFL

2. A friendly at­mos­phere

3. A place my dad wouldn’t mind liv­ing

Dwayne isn’t scared about the fu­ture of his son, he knows it’s as bright as can be.

Sit­ting in their liv­ing room, Dwayne says he’s wor­ried like any nor­mal par­ent would be about send­ing his kid off to col­lege. Ques­tion­ing him­self about whether he pre­pared his son well or if he's go­ing to be happy and suc­cess­ful.

But Is­rael steps in with the an­swer this time.

“I’m a lit­tle ner­vous,” Is­rael said about go­ing to col­lege. “But I’m ready.”

Dwayne sits back in his arm chair while look­ing at his son and smiles.

Is­rael needed no prompt­ing with that an­swer.

[PHOTO BY DOUG HOKE, THE OK­LA­HOMAN]

Dwayne An­twine, greets his son, Is­rael An­twine, a de­fen­sive tackle at Mill­wood High School af­ter prac­tice.

[PHOTO BY DOUG HOKE, THE OK­LA­HOMAN]

Is­rael An­twine, de­fen­sive tackle at Mill­wood High School, walks home af­ter prac­tice.

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