Stetson student an inspiration on the gridiron

This article can be found published on the Daily Local News‘ website.
Gaven Toney, born without hands or feet, doesn’t let them stop him from playing sports.

Gaven Toney, born without hands or feet, doesn’t let them stop him from playing sports.

WEST CHESTER — Gaven Toney isn’t looking to be an inspiration. He just wants to be a kid.

The Stetson Middle School seventh grader is playing football for the first time in his life and is turning heads doing it, but not for the reason most people would think.

It’s because Toney was born without hands or feet. He instead has legs to just below his knees and arms to about his elbows.

“Gaven isn’t the type of kid that wants to be a story,” said Mitch Hoffman, Toney’s football coach. “He just wants to be a regular kid, and he is. He proves that in every way he’s out here. He’s an inspiration to everybody.”

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This is Toney’s first year playing football, a decision he made before the season began.

“I like watching it every Sunday and I thought I’d come out here and try the real thing,” he said. “Every time I had friends over, we’d play and I’d duke them all out. I decided to take it to the field and see what happens. I’m having a blast with it so far.”

Hoffman admitted that he wasn’t quite sure what to expect when he found out Toney was going to come out for the team.

A phone call from Toney’s mother, however, put him at ease, and then seeing him on the field proved his capability of playing even more.

“Gaven can play,” Hoffman said. “It’s not just a situation where Gaven comes out and is a part of a team. He can compete. He can cause problems. He can do exactly what our defensive linemen needs to do. He’s very fast, he’s very physical and he has an advantage that he plays very low to the ground. In football, the lower you are, the more successful you’re going to be. He’s not a kid that gets pushed around easily. He has been like that since day one.”

Toney has been a force on the field, creating havoc and causing turnover, such as what he did against rival Fugett Middle School.

Bursting through the line of scrimmage, Toney went hard after the quarterback, causing the kid to panic and toss the ball into the air, allowing a Stetson player to intercept it and turn the game in their favor.

Toney still smiles remembering that play.

“Everybody doesn’t know and they’re probably like, ‘Oh, what’s he doing out here? He should probably be watching,’” he said. “It’s pretty cool that I can show them that I can play with them, too. It’s going well so far.”

On the field, Toney plays nose tackle and also plays on special teams.

“I’m right in the middle of everything,” Toney said. “I can recognize what’s going on and hopefully I can cause a big problem in the middle and make them go to the outside.”

He tries to learn from the best by watching the Philadelphia Eagles and getting the inspiration to play from DeMarco Murray and Ryan Matthews.

In order to play, Toney wears specially fitted buckets to put on his feet, which had to be approved by the PIAA. Other than that, he wears everything the same as any other football player.

“They go right over top of his legs,” Hoffman said. “The buckets are basically protective gear for him. Unfortunately, they slow him down a little bit, but that’s pretty much it.”

For Stetson’s final game of the season, it played rival Peirce in the annual Pink Game, where all proceeds raised from the game and both schools go to Unite for Her in support of breast cancer research. Stetson named four captains for the game, and Toney was one of them.

“Gaven isn’t one of those kids that was afraid or waiting for his opportunity,” Hoffman said. “Gaven will be right next to the coach, ready to go, whereas some of the other kids take a little bit of time or a little nervous to get out there. That’s the type of kid we wanted to put into a leadership role. He’s not afraid to make mistakes, which is OK at this level or any level. A captain is somebody that has a lot of status with his peers and Gaven has that. The kids respect him.”

On top of football, Toney also plays or has played baseball, basketball and wrestling.

Watching Toney on the field can still choke up Hoffman. He knows personally the struggle it can be for someone like Toney. Hoffman’s brother is in a wheelchair due to an accident.

“It can be very hard for those going through it to handle and it can be hard for the family members to handle,” Hoffman said. “When I watch him approach practice, life, school and being a teenage kid, it puts everything in perspective. It just makes you flat out proud to be around him and associated with him. There are a lot of people who have been there for him, most importantly his mother. His mother is amazing. She’s an amazing woman. There was no doubt in her mind he could do what he’s doing.”

To Toney, he really doesn’t know any differently. It’s something he has always had and it makes no difference to him with anything he wants to do.

“I have just lived with it,” he said. “If I can do this, what else can stop me? I want to come back next year and hopefully do bigger things.”

Hoffman has enjoyed the season spent with such a special player.

Toney has touched the lives of every person he has met, whether he knows it or not. And though he isn’t out to be an influence to others, he has inspired more people than he could ever imagine.

“When I was in grad school, a professor told us all a teacher was not going to make a lot of money, but he said there were going to be times as a teacher and a coach where you are going to be a part of events like this, a part of a young person’s life that will hit you in ways money can’t even come close to amounting to,” Hoffman said. “You don’t realize it until something like this comes along. It is exactly what that professor told me. This is one of those moments I wouldn’t trade for $1 million. It makes it all worthwhile.”

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Categories: Baseball, Basketball, Education, Features, Football, Sports, Wrestling

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