When our daughter Tiana started playing soccer six years ago, Bethany and I weren’t sure what to expect. Watching Tiana play basketball had already taught us that our daughter, who was born with cerebral palsy, would not let the muscle spasticity and motor planning deficiencies associated with her condition stop her from participating in any activity in which she was interested. No matter how many times Tiana fell down on the hard court, she always got back to her feet, politely refusing to let her teammates or opponents help her up.

Travis Naughton

I’ll never forget when Tiana scored her first basket. She had been working hard all season at practice and at home to develop her shot, and after seizing a rebound following an opponent’s miss, she turned and sank a beautiful put-back basket—in the other team’s goal. The crowd sighed a collective “oh, no!” and enthusiastically cheered for her effort. A few minutes later, Tiana splashed one home in the correct basket, and those gathered in the gym that day roared with a palpable sense of pride and admiration for our little girl that I will never forget for as long as I live.

I’ll never forget the events of last Saturday either. The day began with an impromptu coaching session led by my friend Troy—in town for the Roots ‘n’ Blues Festival—who just happens to be a youth soccer coach in Colorado. Troy showed Tiana how to turn her hips to face her target, and he gave her some tips on re-directing a teammate’s pass toward the goal. Then, Troy grabbed a pencil and some paper and diagrammed a position for Tiana to occupy on the field in order to maximize her chances of scoring.

Later that afternoon, on a perfect mid-Missouri Fall day, the soccer gods smiled down upon our Tiana. Her coach, Matt Uhrig, had been working with Tiana for two seasons on developing her understanding of the game. After Saturday’s match, he sent me a message praising Tiana for always working hard and having a positive attitude, “which carries through to the rest of the team.” He called her a leader, saying that no one works harder than her.

For the last several games, Matt has consistently played Tiana at forward, trying to give her the best opportunity to score. Tiana’s teammates understood how badly Tiana wanted to make a goal. They knew that despite all her hard work, Tiana had never scored a single goal in the six years she had been playing soccer.

39 minutes into a 40-minute game, Tiana positioned herself near her opponent’s goal, hoping to have a chance to implement the strategies Troy had showed her that morning. A teammate saw her standing near the net and passed her the ball. Tiana controlled it confidently, adjusted her hips, and as the goal keeper moved to block a right-footed shot, Tiana deftly kicked the ball with her left foot—straight into the net.

The next few moments are a bit of a blur for me. I vaguely recall setting my five-year-old niece down before standing up and screaming at the top of my lungs. Through watery eyes, with my clinched fists in the air, I yelled for my daughter as loud as I could. So did her mother, her brother, her cousins, her grandmother, our friends, and virtually every other parent, competitor, and coach who was there that day. I high-fived a beaming Troy and turned to hug my wife, who was too emotional to speak. It felt like a dream—a wonderful, long-anticipated, magical dream.

A minute later, the game was over.

When I caught up to Tiana on the sideline, I hugged her and kissed her and told her how proud of her I was and how happy I was for her. She said, “My face hurts from smiling so much!”

Me, too, beautiful girl. Me, too.

On behalf of Tiana and our family, I would like to say thank you to all the people who have been pulling for my daughter on the soccer field—and in life. Thank you for encouraging her, cheering for her, and loving her. We are truly blessed to live in a community surrounded by such caring and compassionate people.

Thank you to all of Tiana’s coaches past and present who have taught her the game and taught her to believe in herself. Thank you to Tiana’s teammates for being unselfish and thoughtful on and off the field.

And thank you, Tiana, for teaching all of us that if you’re willing to work hard enough, and maintain a positive attitude, you can reach any goal in life. You, daughter, are my hero, and I love you more than you will ever know.

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