Nathan Laws loves football. More specifically, he loves his Wentzville Wildcats. He started playing in fourth grade and continued through the sixth grade. When asked by KSDK TV in St. Louis why he loves the game so much, Nathan, now 13, gave a befitting response: “Well, you get to hit people.”

Nathan’s playing career came to an abrupt end when he was diagnosed with mitochondrial disease at age 11. “He wasn’t eating well and he was having seizures, and we just couldn’t figure out what it was,” Nathan’s mom, Keli Stone said. Mitochondrial disease affects patients on a cellular level and causes muscle weakness, pain, and often organ failure. Nathan eventually became too weak to attend school, so football was definitely off the table.

Without football, some of the best parts of Nathan’s childhood were slipping away and Keli began to worry. “He started to get down,” she said. “It was the first time we ever saw Nathan get down. Nothing was working.” Nathan’s spirit was breaking and no one seemed to know what to do.

Enter James Hawkins – the Wentzville Wildcats head coach. Hawkins needed an assistant coach and offered the position to Nathan. Keli remarked, “I saw Nathan smile for the first time in a long time.”

With that, Nathan became the youngest assistant coach in Gateway Football League history. Make no mistake – Nathan is not just an honorary coach. Hawkins gave him real responsibilities. Nathan breaks down game film and suggests plays – just as any other assistant coach would.

The players know him as “coach” and are very complimentary and appreciative of his skills as a motivator. “He’s very strong. He’s very encouraging,” running back Dominic Sharp told KSDK. Wide receiver Creighton Ervin added, “Like if we mess up or something, he still says ‘nice try.’”

Nathan’s positive impact on the team is evident to Hawkins. At halftime of a recent game, the Wildcats retired Nathan’s # 19 as a gesture of gratitude. Not only did the Wildcats and their families attend, but the entire Gateway Football League came as a show of support. Hawkins held back tears as he explained what Nathan was going through and how he has handled his illness.

“Yet you never hear a single complaint from him and we never have,” Hawkins said. “That’s what inspires me.” Hawkins thought retiring Nathan’s number was a nice way of saying thank you, but Keli said she is the one who’s grateful. “Someone gave him value and gave him worth.  And gave him something to fight for.”

Coach Hawkins overlooked what Nathan could not do and focused on the gifts Nathan had that could make the team better. And by looking at Nathan as a person who has value, Hawkins not only made Nathan feel better, he made Nathan better – period.