Twelve-year-old Parker Inks is 11 days away from his debut as a Rossford High School Bulldog, and he’s as excited as his older teammates.

His loyalties will be divided, however. The following night he’ll be back in Fremont, suiting up with his teammates at St. Joseph Central Catholic High School.

I need to explain.

Parker goes to school in Fremont, but Todd Drusback, his good buddy, is the head football coach at Rossford, and they go way back. All the way to 2008, when Mr. Drusback, then the head coach at St. Joe, learned about a remarkable youngster with a passion for football.

Well, there’s that wheelchair thing, but let’s not dwell on technicalities. Parker had enthusiasm, determination, and a smile that could light up a locker room. Coach Drusback knew he had to get the kid involved.

So Parker became the Streaks’ ball boy and tee boy, rolling his chair onto the field with his dad, Craig, to retrieve the kicking tee after every Fremont kickoff. Soon that wasn’t enough. By Parker’s second year with the team, he had become its motivational speaker, firing up the squad just before the Streaks ran out to play.

It’s a skill he seems to have mastered. In one of his more memorable locker room talks, he delivered his usual message of inspiration, and then, with perfect timing, crumpled his notes with his good hand. “Oh, the heck with it,” he said. “Let’s go out and kick some butt.”

Eventually, as successful coaches do, Coach Drusback moved on. Having turned around the St. Joe program, he accepted another daunting challenge and took the Rossford job. The Bulldogs had gone 0 and 10 in the two years before he arrived and were 0 and 10 again last season, his first at the helm.

So the call went out to Parker. St. Joe’s record with Parker as tee boy was 26 and 9. Clearly Rossford is hoping some of his magic rubs off. Parker will handle the ball and tee duties when the Bulldogs begin their 2011 season at home against Bowling Green High School on Aug. 26.

He’s not giving up his St. Joe gig. He’ll be back on the Streaks’ sideline the next night.

This would be a good story even if it went no further. But there’s more.

Coach Drusback remembers pondering the unfairness of it all when he met the Inks family three years ago. Parker has congenital muscular dystrophy. In March, 2008, he spent nearly a month at Mercy St. Vincent Medical Center fighting for his life against viral pneumonia.

As if that weren’t enough of a blow to the family, Parker’s mother, Patty, began chemotherapy the same month for Hodgkin’s lymphoma. Dark days. Scary nights. Medical bills began piling up.

Coach Drusback visited Parker in the hospital, and felt the youngster’s tight grip on his hand. “It was like a higher power was speaking to me,” he recalls.

The tough 39-year-old football coach with the generous heart, blessed with three healthy little ones of his own, knew how lucky he was. He began organizing fund-raisers for the Inks family, including a spaghetti dinner in Fremont that served more than 1,100 people in four hours.

So overwhelming was the community’s response, the coach and the Inks family established a new foundation called Parker’s Purpose to help the families of ill or disabled children who face an immediate financial crisis.

Families can apply for as much as $1,000 in unrestricted funds to help ease the expenses — food, lodging, gasoline, no matter what — that often accompany long-term medical treatment. So far, Parker’s Purpose has awarded $40,000 to families whose determination to make the hurt go away is matched by their gratitude to total strangers.

The word is getting out, thanks to the Web site Roughly half of the applications for help are coming from outside Ohio. For now, Parker’s Purpose is focusing, out of financial necessity, on Ohio families.

Fund-raising is a constant effort. Annual dinner/auctions help, and Parker’s Purpose recently received 501(c)3 status from the Internal Revenue Service, making donations tax-deductible. There is no paid staff.

With all the Inks family has been through, they remain positive. Mom Patty’s cancer is in remission, Parker will soon be a teenager, and life goes on. Not surprisingly, Mrs. Inks thinks the world of Coach Drusback.

“He’s as much family member as friend,” she says. “We’re very grateful for Todd.”

The coach isn’t sure what words of wisdom Parker intends to share with his team a week from Friday night, but he’s pretty sure how his players will react.

“I want them to see Parker and realize they have opportunities he doesn’t,” he said.

Playing in a new league this year, the Northern Buckeye Conference, the Bulldogs don’t figure to go 0 and 10 again. Not with Parker Inks on their side.

Thomas Walton is retired editor and vice president of The Blade. His column appears every other Monday.

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