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Stephen Eisenhauer earns SOSC spirit award

Only minutes remained in the city rivalry match. It was Senior Night, boys varsity soccer style. North Medford had yet to score against South Medford on a chilly fall night at Spiegelberg Stadium and trailed by three as the clock spat out the waning seconds.

Victory was not a plausible outcome for the Black Tornado.

At least, not on the scoreboard.

Enter Stephen Eisenhauer, a four-year member of the junior varsity getting his first chance on the big stage. He dashed onto the field, smiling broadly, both arms jutting triumphantly skyward. Fans cheered. Players on both teams clapped. No. 19 in your program, No. 1 in your hearts.

A pass came Stephen’s way, he dribbled toward the South Medford goal.

Anticipation thickened.

“Stephen knew exactly what to do in that moment,” says Lance, his father. “He’s been practicing shots on goal for many, many years.”

Sure enough, a flick of his right foot sent the ball bounding just to the right of and past the goalkeeper.

Cheers rang down. Stephen’s arms sprang skyward again. He dashed some more.

As it turns out, it was a win for North Medford. And for South Medford. And for those who watched.

Stephen has Down syndrome. He’s been playing soccer since about the time he learned to walk at age 2, and has had lifelong partners in his parents, Lance and Lauri, and his older brother, David, an assistant coach for the North Medford JV team Stephen played on for four years.

That the goal was contrived mattered not. The two coaches got together and set it up. Token resistance, nothing more.

But the outcome, and Stephen’s resultant joy, could not have been more blissful.

The obstacles for Stephen began when he was born with an extra chromosome and a hole in his heart that required surgery at 6 months. Sports have been a “bridge to inclusion,” his father says, but not without terrific challenge.

Stephen’s sticktoitiveness has been inspirational, and he will receive the Dan Bulkley Spirit of Competition Award from the Southern Oregon Sports Commission. He’ll be recognized at the SOSC’s sixth-annual banquet Thursday at the Santo Community Center.

The Eisenhauers were sticklers when it came to involving Stephen in sports and other activities. Lance is a physical therapist and knows well the importance of exercise in the development of children.

“We just kind of insisted on it,” he says, “even though it was so difficult in the beginning.”

The spirit award was met with equal parts surprise and pride.

“It kind of felt like validation of everything that Lauri and I and David have been working to do to keep Stephen involved in his community,” says Lance. “And it kind of promotes the story of kids with disabilities and how they, too, deserve the chance that everyone else gets, whether or not they’re at the same levels of competition.”

Upon hearing of the award, Lance looked into the story of Bulkley, a famed masters athlete and Southern Oregon University educator and coach. He died in 2018 at age 101 — a year after he ran a 100-meter dash to commemorate his centennial birthday.

“That just raised the level of pride for Stephen to be honored with that award,” says Lance.

The Eisenhauers had no inkling their second child’s life would be different from most. Lauri’s pregnancy went well and the delivery was smooth. Only as Stephen was being whisked to neonatal intensive care did they realize something wasn’t right.

Lance recalls meeting with the intensivist doctor, who, he says, explained, “You’re going to have lots of people over the course of your life tell you all the things that Stephen’s not going to be able to do, and you’re going to disregard that and think about only the things he can do, what any other child would do.”

Everything came slowly for Stephen.

He could barely walk or climb stairs in elementary school. Communicating was long a hardship. It took him about 15 years, says Lance, to learn to give a thumbs-up sign; his version was to hold up his index finger, as if to indicate No. 1.

“All the milestones everybody else would miss out on if they blinked,” says Lance, “we got to see coming for weeks and months before he was finally able to achieve them.”

It’s a blessing, he adds, that Stephen has an even-keeled disposition and rarely gets upset. He enjoys his day-to-day existence, the routine it brings.

“He has a good understanding of his life and social interactions,” says Lance.

Now when he’s happy, Stephen looks down, smiles and gives two thumbs up.

The Eisenhauers moved to the Rogue Valley in 2003 from Riverside, California. They found it frustrating in the early years trying to integrate Stephen into the school system. That abated as he reached middle school and was familiar to many more people, says Lance.

Conversely, getting him into the Rogue Valley Timbers Soccer Club was seamless, says Lance, and that enabled him to play year after year, graduating all the way to the Black Tornado JV team.

North Medford JV coach Scott Stewart would see to it that Stephen got in for a few minutes at the end of each half.

A striker, Stephen knew what to do with the ball. He could dribble, pass, one-touch pass and shoot. His pace was slower than others’, mind you, and he wasn’t one you’d rely on for defense.

Whatever Stephen did, he did with gusto. But for a striker, scoring is the pinnacle, and Stephen hadn’t experienced that.

“We thought after all the years he’d been playing, there might be a moment where he would be in the right place at the right time,” says Lance. “The ball would get to him and he might be able to take a shot and score without a little bit of a setup.”

But stiff competition prevented it. If a crease did open, it closed quickly when an opponent reached the ball faster than Stephen.

“It was always funny to watch him get frustrated,” says Lance, “because he’s just as competitive as any of the other kids on the field. So when somebody took the ball away, he would be pissed about it just like some of the kids.”

Then came Senior Night, a “perfect cap,” says Lance, to Stephen’s career, and the spirit award, an extension of that celebration.

Ask Stephen about it, and you’ll likely be greeted with two thumbs up.

Reach sports editor Tim Trower at 541-776-4479 or ttrower@rosebudmedia.com.

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