More Than a Trainer, Bowie High Football’s Jacob Wempe Is a Friend
By Albert Valdez
Silence filled the stands at Toney Burger Stadium as players fell to one knee for an injury timeout. Jacob Wempe trotted to the field with a six-pack of water bottles, maneuvering his way around players dripping in sweat. He handed James Bowie High School senior linebacker Ashton Rogers a bottle.
Then he gave him a hug.
It’s not often that you see a 6-foot-4, 220-pound football player embraced during a game by a trainer. But 28-year-old Jacob, born with Down Syndrome, is good at giving hugs, no matter the moment. Now in his 13th year at Bowie, Jacob transcends his role as the bearer of water bottles. He is a part of Bowie football. He’s one of the boys.
“He reminds us that we are more than just teammates,” said Rogers, 18. “We are a family.”
Jacob joined the team in 2003, during his sophomore year at the South Austin school. His father wanted him to experience high school life outside of the special education program. Jacob embraced the idea. Football is one of his favorite sports, and the high school football season was about to kick off.
“I knew my son wasn’t going to be a scholar or a five-star athlete,” Rick Wempe said. “But as a parent, I just want him to be accepted.”
Rick saw this acceptance early. Bowie coach Jeff Ables put his arm around Jacob during a team gathering after one of the first practices Jacob was a part of. Jacob stood under Ables’ arm as he addressed the team. Rick Wempe wished he could hold the moment forever.
Jacob was there for the 31-28 overtime win over Stephen F. Austin High School in 2007. Triumphant players dumped a bucket of ice water on Ables after the game, and Jacob got bathed, too. He loved jumping and hollering at midfield with his teammates after such a big win.
Since graduating from Bowie in 2007, Jacob returns every fall to work on the sidelines during practices and games. He rarely misses anything. He loves watching the band perform the alma mater and joining hands with players at midfield postgame. He enjoys sitting with the team on the bus on the way back from an away game. He loves the game itself.
Thirty minutes before kickoff at Bowie’s game against Del Valle recently, Jacob wore a black and red Bowie football polo with a beige bucket hat over his glasses.
Hip-hop music blasted from the PA system as Bowie cheerleaders practiced on the sidelines in pink breast cancer awareness shirts. The band began to fill the seats as the team readied for kickoff. Jacob sat at a bench behind the 50-yard-line and watched the team in pregame warmups as Mathew Forrest approached.
Forrest, a 16-year-old junior linebacker, gave Jacob a fist bump and wrapped his arm around him. He asked how Jacob was doing and if he was ready for the game. Forrest said that’s the ritual he shares with Jacob every time he sees him.
Jacob often does the same with other players. He talks with everyone in practice, tells them to keep working and reminds them how good they are.
“Riding to the games, a lot of times I am uptight, and Jacob will tap me on my back and say, ‘How is it going?’ ” Ables said. It’s a little thing. It’s also meaningful.
Senior center Kyle Ohlen, 17, said he’ll miss Jacob after he graduates. After the Del Valle game, Ohlen and Rogers stood on either side of Jacob as they posed for a photo. At 4-foot-11, Jacob just reach the chest level of the players and smiled widely. The photo remains in Ohlen’s cell phone as a reminder of the memories and friendship they share.
Ohlen remembered how no one would talk to him when he moved up to varsity his freshman year. Jacob was one of the first to do so.
“He brings a positive attitude towards everything. When we are all tired, he is out running around giving us water,” Ohlen said. “We want to work as hard as he does.”
When Jacob is not on the sidelines, he cleans tables and trays during the lunch shift at a P. Terry’s restaurant. At night, he lifts weights at a nearby gym. He has won three state power-lifting competitions in his weight class.
Jacob’s room is covered with Bowie football memorabilia. Eight team photos are pinned on his wall by his bedside in South Austin. On his closet door, two mums that friends gave him hang from a basketball hoop. Photos with past and present players from Bowie litter his dresser.
“It’s part of my life,” Jacob said. “They’re my boys.”