Published 12:00 am Wednesday, December 28, 2011

SALISBURY — Zachary Owen talks slowly and directly.
His actions are measured, like the hits he delivers on a football field, even at age 12.
This week, Owen has been attending activities and practices connected with the Offense-Defense All-American Bowl, a nationally televised showcase of 80 high school seniors.
No, he isn’t playing against high school seniors yet, but he will be competing in the similarly designed Offense-Defense Youth All-American Bowl with peers his own size.
During the week, he’ll get to play two games, including one in Cowboys Stadium in Arlington, Texas, home of the Dallas Cowboys. Zachary is a Carolina Panthers fan, by the way.
Owen received an invitation to this week’s activities in Texas after attending a summer camp in Williamsburg, Va., by Offense-Defense Sports.
The company has been running full-contact football instructional camps for 43 years, and Williamsburg is one of 40 camp locations nationwide.
About 20 percent of the kids who attend the summer camps are invited to the year-end bowl games.
Football means a lot to Robby and Barbara Owen, because it has helped Zachary deal with his Asperger’s syndrome — a high-functioning autism that has challenged him since birth.
“Whenever he gets on that field, he gets in a zone,” Barbara Owen says.
At the summer camp in Williamsburg, Zachary won the leadership award for his age group. The coaches consistently graded his skills as an offensive and defensive lineman with A’s and B’s.
Zachary followed up the summer camp with a successful season playing for the West Rowan team in the Youth Football League. He recovered five fumbles, he says, “and I made a kid cry.”
Barbara says Zachary, a sixth-grader at West Rowan Middle School, is “143 pounds of solid muscle.”
He also enjoys wrestling and recently placed second in Rowan County in the heavyweight class for his age.
Zachary says he has bench-pressed 134 pounds and squatted 190 pounds.
His goal is to beat West Rowan High All-American K.P. Parks’ record of 72 pull-ups in the Presidential Fitness Test. His parents and older brother, Trent, caution he has a long way to go in beating that mark.
But another goal, maybe more likely, is his mission to play football for West Rowan High.
Robby and Barbara Owen learned some years ago that physical activity, especially contact, was important for Zachary as he got older.
“Contact, he needs that,” Barbara says. “That’s why football was such a good fit for him.”
He has been playing football since the third grade. The parents also enrolled Zachary in taekwondo classes and realized that a trampoline and punching bag provided good outlets as he dealt with frustration connected to his Asperger’s.
When he was six months old, Barbara suspected her youngest son was coping — or not coping — with something serious. And by the time he was 18 months, the couple were at their wits’ end.
Zachary was never happy. He seemed to have trouble adjusting to the simplest things, such as lights, noise and people he didn’t know.
The family, which includes older son Trent, couldn’t even go out to eat because they didn’t know how Zachary might react.
It took specialists and all kinds of tests before the official diagnosis of Asperger’s syndrome came.
He also was sick, hospitalized for pneumonia twice. Barbara lost her job because she opted to stay in the hospital with Zachary.
“It was awful — I’m not kidding,” she says.
No two children deal with this kind of autism the same. Generally, a child with Asperger’s has trouble in social situations, but Barbara purposely enrolled him in pre-school programs starting at 3, so he would have some interaction with children his age.
The couple also relied on occupational therapists because he wasn’t reacting the way he should to normal sensations, such as hot and cold. Early on, he didn’t like to be touched, either.
“Now he just administers pain,” Barbara says of Zachary, the football player.
The parents had to set up routines for Zachary, who didn’t adapt well to changes.
Mornings — getting him ready to leave the house — could be a major undertaking. “If you deviated at all, it was traumatic to him,” Barbara says.
For years, his breakfast was always the same — oatmeal, yogurt and applesauce. Some mornings he might rock in a rocking chair for a good hour before he was ready to go, his mother said.
At 2 years old, he was on the level of a 6-month-old. At 5, Zachary was like a 3-year-old. But his parents and brother kept working with him, learning his idiosyncracies, finding ways to help him communicate and creating outlets for his frustration.
“He has caught up and, in some cases is ahead of his peers,” Barbra says today. “… He’s as smart as a whip.”
Barbara Owen knows a little bit about adversity.
Facing a tough life at home, she entered foster care at age 13 and lived several years at Nazareth Children’s Home.
She met Robby, who was attending West Rowan High, on a blind date set up by mutual friends. It was blind for her, not for him. (He had seen a photograph of her before they went out.)
Driving home from the movie that night, Barbara knew she was going to marry Robby. She liked his eyes and his 1978 Camaro.
Exactly six months later they wed and, over a year’s time, she became pregnant with Trent, had the baby, graduated high school, and the couple moved into their first home together.
After Trent was born, Barbara was going to King’s College and working full time. “I was young, dumb and crazy,” she says.
The couple have been married 18 years. Robby works as an electrician for Schult Homes in Rockwell. Since 2002, Barbara has been a night billing clerk for the Old Dominion trucking firm in Thomasville.
Barbara’s night-time shift has worked out well for the couple, making sure they have 24-hour coverage, so to speak, in case their kids need them.
But things have improved greatly for Zachary and the family as a whole. Give football some of the credit.
Contact Mark Wineka at 704-797-4263, or mwineka@