FOOTBALL /// Westlake Warriors
A pair of textbook blocks opened a running lane.
Corey Campos, a Westlake High freshman football player seeing his first action of the fall against St. Francis on Sept. 12, burst through the opening.
The running back eluded one defender and broke free in the defensive secondary.
With nothing but open space in front of him, Campos turned on the boosters.
Golden Knights pursued, but nothing was going to stop Campos from celebrating in the end zone with his Warrior brothers.
“He booked it the whole way there,” George Campos said of his son, who sprinted 65 yards for the score.
Ecstatic Westlake teammates caught up with and surrounded Corey Campos, who pointed to his family in the stands before spiking the ball like Rob Gronkowski and mimicking Cam Newton’s Superman shirt rip.
“We were not expecting that at all,” said Brandi Campos, the player’s mother, of the impromptu celebration.
Westlake cheerleaders, fans and players lost their collective minds, but the scoreboard remained unchanged. Time hadn’t even come off the clock.
The run technically didn’t count toward the final score because coaches on both teams agreed before the game to allow Corey Campos, a 15-year-old with Down syndrome, to open the second half with a touchdown run.
Campos didn’t mind.
“It counted in his book,” his father said.
If teammates hadn’t stopped him, Campos would probably still be celebrating in the end zone, forever basking in the glory of his first touchdown as a high school football player.
LOVE OF THE GAME
Campos paced up and down the sideline as his Westlake teammates battled St. Bonaventure on Oct. 11.
The freshman paused to fix the loose end of the pink tape on his left wrist. The tape matched the pink laces he’s sporting on his cleats for all of October, Breast Cancer Awareness Month.
A sentence a teammate had scribbled on the tape in black sharpie was illegible, but Campos explained the significance of the words.
“It says, ‘I love you, mom and dad,’” he said, flashing his heartwarming smile.
That smile hasn’t left Campos’ face since the summer, when his parents signed him up for his first season of tackle football.
Campos, a football and WWE wrestling fanatic, grew up playing flag football in the Conejo Youth Flag Football League. His parents tried transitioning him to a special needs football league when he was in sixth grade, but Campos knew the difference.
“It wasn’t really a game,” his father said. “They went there and ran drills. Corey was just like, ‘When are we going to play? I want to play.’”
As a middle school student, Campos roamed the sidelines as an assistant coach on his younger brother Charlie’s Thousand Oaks Titans team. It was far from ideal.
“He knew he wasn’t really a coach,” Brandi Campos said. “He’s very smart. You can’t fool him. He’d sit on the bench a lot and kind of pout.”
Corey Campos wanted to play, and his parents, Agoura High sweethearts, wanted to give him that opportunity.
The summer before Campos’ freshman year at Westlake, the parents asked varsity head coach Tim Kirksey about getting their son involved with Westlake’s program.
“We didn’t know what to expect,” Brandi said. “Tim Kirksey said, ‘Of course. We’d love to have him. What’s his dream?’”
Brandi had no answer. She thought nothing would come of the inquiry. At best, maybe her son would be offered a team manager gig, but she wondered if getting on the field was an option.
Kirksey huddled with freshman football head coach Ryan Dyer, who had concerns.
“My biggest thought was, ‘How are we going to make this work?’,” Dyer said. “(Kirksey) said, ‘I have no idea, but figure it out.’”
Dyer agreed, but he wanted to meet Campos first.
Campos, who often does You- Tube weight training videos at his family’s Thousand Oaks home, was determined to make a good first impression. Upon meeting Dyer, Campos dropped and gave the coach 50 pushups to prove he had the strength to keep up with his peers.
Dyer was sold. Campos could join the team, and he’d be in pads and a helmet.
“I never imagined he’d be in pads,” Brandi said.
ONE OF THE GUYS
Dyer, a 1995 Westlake graduate, admits there was a time when Campos would have likely been the outcast of a high school program.
“When I played in the ’90s at Westlake, we probably would have ignored him,” Dyer said with a hint of shame. “Kids today are more receptive to people who look different.”
Luckily for Campos, times have changed.
“We took him in with open arms,” said Howie Iongi, a freshman defensive end on Westlake’s varsity team. “We just want to let him know that we’re his brothers and that we’re here for him.”
“We want him to feel like a part of the team because he really is,” said Vincent Bennett, a freshman defensive tackle who attended Colina Middle School with Campos. “He brings a positive energy to us.”
Campos is the Warriors’ spirit animal.
He often does the floss dance on the sideline, and he’s constantly looking into the stands to see how many people are there to support his team.
His infectious smile and positive vibes motivate his teammates. He raised both fists toward the heavens when freshman teammate Tate Meckfessel returned his second kickoff for a touchdown against St. Bonaventure.
Iongi said the Warriors try to show their appreciation of Campos every chance they get. Iongi wasn’t going to miss Campos’ touchdown run against St. Francis.
“I was there to hype him up,” Iongi said. “He had a big smile on his face. Nothing could take that away from him.”
Dyer sent Campos, who is 5-foot-3 and 120 pounds, out to play linebacker against Crespi on Oct. 3.
“There was no preemptive talk with the other coach,” Dyer said.
Gil’Laan Jackson, a fellow freshman linebacker, played body guard.
“Gil’Laan did a spectacular job of making sure nobody hit Corey,” Dyer said.
Campos hasn’t played since his defensive appearance, but Dyer said that doesn’t mean the Warrior won’t see the field again later this fall or in the coming years.
The coach said he hopes Campos, who plans to wrestle in the winter, sticks with football throughout high school.
“As long as Corey wants to do it, he’s more than welcome,” Dyer said. “He’s a respectful kid and he’s not a distraction. He just comes and acts like every other kid out here.”
When Charlie Campos, an eighth grader at Redwood Middle School, doesn’t have football practice of his own, he serves as the ball boy for Westlake’s freshman team.
It gives him a unique, up-close look at his older brother interacting with his peers.
“Usually kids who have Down syndrome don’t get to have an opportunity like this,” Charlie said. “(Corey) has so many friends. I’m glad he doesn’t have to worry about bullying because he has a whole football squad behind him.”
Corey and Charlie stick together in a family divided by loyalty to different NFL teams. Their older brother, Blake, a 2017 graduate of Thousand Oaks, roots for the Pittsburgh Steelers. The youngest boy, Dylan, an 11-yearold sixth grader at Redwood, supports the Seattle Seahawks. George prays for the Chargers.
Corey and Charlie share a love for the San Francisco 49ers.
“We’re so close that we call each other twins,” said Charlie, a running back. “When he ran the ball (against St. Francis), he was like, ‘Now we’re really twins.’”
Charlie said Corey does have difficult days, but the younger sibling is glad he can help.
“It takes a lot of patience,” Charlie said. “Whenever he’s in a bad mood, I can make him smile. I’m glad I have that ability.”
Charlie’s high school choice brings a smile to his brother’s face.
“Charlie will come here next year,” Corey Campos said.
‘GO, COREY! GO!’
Brandi said tears come to her eyes watching Campos run around in his younger brother’s hand-me-down cleats.
“When he’s out here, the entire cheer team, all the parents and all of his teammates are screaming, ‘Go, Corey! Go!’” Brandi said. “I get goosebumps.”
She said she couldn’t have envisioned a better experience for her son.
He’s playing football, and he’s accepted by his peers.
Numerous teammates attended Campos’ early 16th birthday pool party on Oct. 5, which included karaoke. Campos, who turns 16 on Nov. 6, sang Dylan Scott’s “My Girl.”
The freshman also shared the dance floor with his teammates during homecoming on Oct. 12.
“He loves to dance,” Brandi said of her son. “It’s not good, but it’s a show.”
Brandi can’t help but ponder what his high school experience would’ve been like if she’d let her fears of allowing him to play tackle football deter him from joining the team.
“My fears can’t stop him from doing what he can do,” she said. “This is what he loves to do. It would be a disadvantage if I held him back.”
Follow Jonathan Andrade on Twitter @J_ Andrade_.