COLERAIN TOWNSHIP, Ohio -- The game ball rests on Noah Kennedy’s dresser. The emotions rest upon the entire Colerain football team.
When Kennedy rises at 6:30 a.m., the pigskin is symbolic of a night last week that provided a lifetime of memories. A dream fulfilled.
The Colerain senior has served as a student manager for the school's football team since his freshman year. Friday night was different. Kennedy participated in three plays in Colerain’s 48-20 win over visiting Oak Hills.
The playoffs begin this week as Colerain (10-0) plays host to Springboro (7-3) at 7:30 p.m. Friday in a Division I regional quarterfinal.
But, the final regular-season game still brings tears to Colerain football coach Tom Bolden nearly a week later.
“It was priceless,” Bolden said. “I knew it meant a lot to him because there were several times throughout the week that he gave me random hugs.”
“As coaches and teachers you get into this to make a difference in people’s lives,” Bolden said. “This is a moment to make something special for somebody that they will never forget.”
Kennedy’s impact goes beyond anything the state’s No. 1-ranked team has accomplished on the football field this season.
At 4 feet 7 and 76 pounds, he’s had several health issues since birth. He wasn’t supposed to live past ages 3, 8, 10 and then 16.
He’s defied all the odds.
He’s had Hirschsprung disease, a condition which occurs when some of the nerve cells in the wall of the intestine don’t form properly. He had his first of dozens of surgeries when he was just a few days old.
He’s also has Crohn’s disease, otherwise known as inflammatory bowel disease. He’s suffered from severe asthma and eosinophilic disorders (blood and tissue problems).
Kennedy balances school and his football manager duties. He also works part-time at Chick-fil-A on Colerain Avenue.
Kennedy wants to study sport management in college. He wants to be a student manager for Jim Harbaugh and the Michigan football program. Kennedy knows where to get a letter of recommendation -- Tom Bolden’s nephew Joe was a standout linebacker for the Wolverines.
At Colerain, Kennedy has run the clock during practice, gets water for teammates, helps set up the equipment and uploads game film. Everyone has accepted him as another member of the team.
More importantly, he always has a smile on his face. He encourages and inspires.
“Of all the things that could be putting him down right now, he’s out here happy and running around,” said Colerain senior linebacker Kyle Bolden, who is Tom’s son. “It kind of lifts you up a little bit.”
Three years ago, Tom Bolden told Kennedy he planned to let him participate in a game. He reinforced that idea at the start of the season.
Very special moment last night with Noah Kennedy starting at WR for the Cardinals! pic.twitter.com/00RvAo52XY
— WeAreColerain.com (@WeAreColerain) October 29, 2016
Kennedy received medical clearance, practiced last week and finally got his game opportunity against Oak Hills. The players were thrilled.
"To see him out there, it was awesome," Kyle Bolden said. "That was one of his biggest dreams -- to play in a football game. That was a special moment."
Kennedy, who turns 18 on Dec. 1, received an engraved keychain, had cheerleaders sing at his house and was able to participate in meals prior to Friday night.
Kennedy wasn’t nervous Friday night. He was excited. And he wanted to make an impact.
Despite a significant cramp in his foot, he received tape and persevered. Nothing was going to keep him from that game.
He was a wide receiver on the first play of the game. Then, he got in on the final two snaps of the game. He took a knee on the final play but he was tempted for something else for a moment.
“It took every ounce of my body not to take off with it because I wanted to score,” Kennedy said. “But I felt that would be unsportsmanlike.”
Kennedy has too much respect for the program to disregard any directives. Kennedy, who attended Colerain Middle School, has known his high school teammates for at least four years and sometimes longer.
He also knew how much Friday night meant to Tom Bolden and his family.
“He was an emotional wreck,” Kennedy said. "I won’t be the last one to say that nor was I the first one to say that. He says that this is a very special group and I would agree with him. I have known these guys for at least the past four years and they are all pretty much like my brothers.”
Senior lineman Howard Watkins Jr. and junior offensive lineman Tahj Roberts lifted Kennedy above the team after the game.
The Bolden brothers (Kyle and sophomore Luke) along with their cousin, junior Dan, all told Kennedy they loved him like a brother after a game.
Kennedy, who wore No. 20, admits he started crying in the locker room afterward. He realized how much he’s persevered in life. Why stop now?
His family cried on the short drive home. He slept soundly that night. No one will soon forget the experience.
The playoffs are here and Kennedy wants another chapter to this story. Colerain football has given him so much, but others say he's given them much more.
“You want to talk about a worldview -- a guy who has been told three or four times that he’s not going to live,” Colerain assistant coach Jeff Woltz said.
“He has a different outlook on life than a lot of us. And for him to still to be as passionate about what we’re doing and wanting to be involved -- I think that speaks volumes about what we do here.”