APPLETON - Friday Night Lights will shine down on football fields all across Northeast Wisconsin again this week.
The Xavier High School Hawks are gearing up for a game against Winneconne, but players and coaches say they've already hosted their most important game of the season.
For the seventh year in a row, the Xavier Hawks hosted "Day Camp For Kids With Autism." More than 100 kids from the greater Midwest were invited to take the field with the players on Saturday, September 8.
"Today is the greatest day of the year for our football program," said Head Football Coach, Dave Hinkens.
His players would agree.
"You get to give back to your community, you're with your team and it makes you feel special to be out here," said Ben Jensen, a senior varsity player.
The camp features numerous skill stations, spread across Rocky Bleier Field. The kids spend time at each one learning how to catch, kick, tackle and more. However, the skills the children learn go way beyond the football field.
Heidi Dahle of Greenville got her 9-year-old son, Payton involved in the camp. Payton has high-functioning autism. Now in his fourth year of camp, he's grown to love a sport and social activity that may have otherwise shied him away.
"A lot of it has to do with social skills," said Dahle.
"Football is very -- you're part of a team -- you're with people who are aggressive and a lot of these kiddos don't like that. So this kind of gets them used to that in a very nice way."
Payton says his favorite part of the camp is scoring touchdowns.
"Well, we got to win points and my parents are so proud of me," said Payton, just before the start of camp.
Xavier's Head Football Coach, Dave Hinkens, says the camp is making a difference for his players as well.
"From our side, I've had kids that have changed careers who are now working with special needs kids," said Hinkens.
Hinkens started the camp 7 years ago, after watching a television program on how surfing was improving the lives of children with autism.
Rocky Bleier Field is no ocean, but Hinkens' efforts are certainly making waves.
If you know of a child who may be interested in attending next year's camp, contact the Autism Society of the Fox Valley.
The Xavier High School Football Team works closely with the organization to make the camp happen every year.
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