Zavala remains unique

Joe Zavala calls himself a stump among trees on the football field.

The Newport Harbor High freshman is listed at 238 pounds. He's also just 5-foot-6, so the nose guard position on the defensive line fits him well.

But even stumps have roots, and Joe Zavala's are so strong.

Fans who watch the Sailors' freshman football games will see No. 65 play relentless, never giving up. Yet, very few of those people know the challenges he's overcome.

Joe is autistic. He was diagnosed when he was just 2 years old.

And, by the way, it defines him less than ever.

"We don't talk about it anymore," said his mother, Peggy Zavala. "There's no reason to. He catches it before it gets too bad anymore."

The Zavalas decided not to let the Newport Harbor coaching staff know about Joe's condition at the start of the season. Coach Joe Urban said he was surprised when he found out.

Joe Zavala's journey has been no less surprising. He was first featured in the Daily Pilot four years ago, back when everyone called him Joseph and he was finishing up his first year of football in Costa Mesa Pop Warner. He had to make weight for that Junior Midget team. Then he did it again the next year, and the next year.

Every year, he lost at least 20 pounds. Robert Murtha, Sr. remembers when Joe was on his Midget team two years ago. That team won the league and went on to a Sun Bowl game in San Diego, behind such talented players like Murtha's son, also named Robert, and Deionte' Haywood, who are both now sophomores on Estancia's varsity team.

Robert calls his son "Boy," and "Boy" was always there to encourage Joe that year. When the team would do "bear crawls," Joe was usually bringing up the rear.

But he was always there.

"No way!" Robert Murtha, Sr. said when he heard Joe was starting on the Sailors' defensive line. Then, he thought about it.

"Actually, I take that back," Murtha said. "It doesn't surprise me at all. You just don't expect something like that out of a kid like that. I didn't expect him to last on our team. We just kept pushing him, but he still showed up everyday. That boy did everything in his power to make weight. He was an inspiration to the team."

During his Pop Warner days, Joe Zavala also took up baseball in the spring, playing in Costa Mesa American Little League. But last year, he left football for a year.

"His last year we said, 'You know what, enjoy your summer, have some ice cream,' " Peggy Zavala said.

Around the end of his eighth grade year at Ensign Intermediate, though, Joe heard some friends talking about high school football.

"I was just really eager to play football again," Joe Zavala said. "I really missed it."

Joe's father Anthony, who himself wore No. 65 when he played high school football at La Quinta, said he thinks Joe might eventually play baseball again someday as well. He's also interested in wrestling, but for the start of his high school career he plans to stick to football.

His parents are always there to lend support. Peggy was always team mom in Pop Warner, not just because she wanted to be involved but also in case Joe began acting up.

This year, Peggy and Anthony are also there, but it's just to watch their son with pride.

"I don't want anybody feeling sorry for him," Anthony Zavala said. "I want him doing this on his own. I told him, 'Just because you're different doesn't mean you can't do it. Your mind thinks different, you act different, but you can get involved.' "

In Pop Warner, Joe wasn't always involved. He would rarely play more than the minimum plays required under league rules, partially because he was always playing up with older kids.

But in freshman football, everyone is the same age. Even better, there's no weight limit to be met.

This last point is especially obvious on Newport Harbor's freshman team, which is 4-4 and plays at home against Marina today. Lineman T.J. Tarazevits is listed at 6-5, 300 pounds. Ramsey Hufford and Sam Bush both stand 6-3 and weigh in at 287 and 268, respectively.

Urban said if he was a Division I college coach, he'd sign these guys yesterday. They contribute to the biggest team he's had in 16 years of coaching. But Urban also doesn't underestimate the potential of Joe Zavala. He saw it a couple weeks ago as practice was getting started, when linemen were in one-on-one drills.

Joe Zavala was against Hufford, and neither wanted to give an inch. Urban said that intensity ran over into that week's game against Los Alamitos, a 36-14 blowout victory.

"It almost got to the point of, 'Hey, I've got to step in here,' " Urban said. "But it was a great moment … My hat's off to him. Football's about being aggressive. We have a saying, 'It's better to be a hammer than it is a nail.'

"He's definitely a hammer-type guy."

Some people may still view autism in an extreme case, like Dustin Hoffman's character in "Rain Man," but that's not Joe Zavala. Sure, he's still in an Individual Educational Program at Newport Harbor, where Peggy is proud to say her son has straight A's. And the freshman football team tried him at center earlier this year, but it was a few too many instructions for Joe to deal with.

He also misses social cues sometimes. In past years, this would be cause for concern. Joe wasn't very social at all at first, actually, sitting alone on the bench watching the game during that first year in Pop Warner.

Now, the family can share a laugh when recalling one freshman game earlier this year.

"It was halftime of a game and I couldn't see him," Peggy Zavala said. "I looked through the binoculars and there was this sea of football players on a knee, with no helmet on, listening to coach. In the middle – literally in the middle of this sea of boys – is Joe, helmet still on, arms crossed, standing up. He did that the whole halftime. He was so involved, so ready and so focused."

His parents smiled and told him he needed to take his helmet off and join the rest of his team. But in a way, it was such a moving moment as well. Joe was somewhere he belonged.

"Football has been a miracle in Joe's life," Peggy Zavala said.

Joe continues to have plenty of family support from mom and dad, as well as his older sister Angel and brother Jalil, who are both seniors at Newport Harbor. His other older brother, Carey, is 25.

"I think it's amazing," Angel Zavala said of her brother's progression. "When he was little, he was so antisocial. I'd always have friends over, and he really wouldn't interact with us at all. He's just come so far from that."

Yes, Joe has plenty of friends himself now. Peggy and Anthony say they know this partially because those friends come over and eat all the family's food, but it's a small price to pay. Two years ago, Joe was even taken off his Risperdal medication for aggression.

Joe Zavala continues to shine. He loves football and wants to keep playing as long as he can.

"I guess it's just the fact that I'm a big guy and I fit in so well with it," he said. "It's helped me out in so many ways. If I never joined football, I'd probably be a totally different person. I'd always be that weird kid that nobody knows."

No, on the field he is just No. 65.

His autism doesn't matter, but his size does.

The stump among trees continues to grow.

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