Judging from the comments on the story about Donald Driver and Ben Rathkamp, it seemed to lay a hand on people’s emotions a little bit. So, we decided to get ahold of Ben.
We wanted to follow up on the story so we contacted Ben and his mother to get a little more perspective on Ben and the impact that Driver and the Green Bay Packers have had on his life.
Ben and his mother were more than happy to grant us an interview, and according the Ben’s mother Valerie Rathkamp, it has taken little time for this young man to form a strong bond with those who wear the green and gold.
“Ben’s first game was actually the pre-season game against the Bengals this year,” says Rathkamp. “My (Rathkamp's) first Packer game was many years ago. I’m old enough to remember sitting in the stands watching Lynn Dickey play. I’ve been going to games since the ‘Dark Ages.’”
Ben, now with a little brother, was an only child for nearly ten years. Growing up was tough for Ben, and tough for the family as well.
“Ben didn’t talk as a toddler,” explains a tested Rathkamp. “I kept taking him to the doctor asking if there was something wrong. He didn’t like to be around other people or loud noises. Yet, he was very intelligent and seemed to understand when people spoke to him. The doctors kept telling me he was fine and that boys speak later than girls. I got on the Internet and started reading about autism and it was like reading about Ben.”
It took an extensive amount of time for the Rathkamp family to get Ben diagnosed. Unfortunately, the fight had just begun.
“Insurance does not cover ANY treatment for autism in the State of Wisconsin, explicates Rathkamp. “I have been a State employee for over 15 years and have excellent insurance but could not get any help for my son. I couldn’t even find someone to tell me where to start.”
Rathkamp’s mother quit her job so she could continue working while offering Ben in-home therapy for 40 hours a week. Still, the hardest part was trying to bring awareness to others about autism.
“Most people think of “Rain Man” when they hear autism,” confessed Rathkamp. “Some autistic individuals are mildly affected and some are more severe. But, their behavior can often look like bad parenting or just a naughty child. It’s not. It’s always a symptom of something that’s bothering them and they can’t communicate what it is. I won’t get into what causes autism… we know our kids better than anyone.”
Now, at 10-years-old, Ben attends a private Catholic school in which his mother has been adamant that he be treated as any other student.
“Ben is in a mainstream classroom,” reveals a firm Rathkamp. “I refused to put him in public school and let a county’s budget dictate how they were going to accommodate my son or warehouse him in a special education room somewhere. The pastor at his school believes in inclusion and acceptance, which has helped us deal with some narrow-minded parents. I believe the more Ben is around typical kids, the more he will model their behavior. I am hopeful for his future.”
Ben knows he is different as well, and if you ask him he’ll tell you, “Some kids have diabetes, some kids can’t walk. I have autism.”
Ben’s mother is still in shock that she is able to sit in the stands with Ben taking in the one-of-a-kind spectacle that is a trip to Lambeau. Before Ben met Donald Driver, he wasn’t even interested in football.
“What a difference it (football) has made to Ben,” says Rathkamp. “He started playing football with the other kids at recess and then he was invited over to a friend’s house for the first time last year.”
This may seem like no big deal, but that was hardly the case.
“Other kids think about going to a friend’s house as just another day, says a mother wise in reality. “For Ben, it was like Christmas or his birthday! He was so excited, he could barely sleep the night before and had his video games packed at 6 a.m.!”
If that doesn’t get you excited, Ben wants you to know that he celebrates game day just as religiously as all Packer die-hards.
“Ben wakes up very early on game day,” reveals Rathkamp. “He makes sure our ‘Packer Shrine’ is in place (various memorabilia arranged on top of the TV). He makes sure everyone has Packer clothing on and always reminds me to wear my ‘lucky socks.’”
If you think it’s tense around here during the game, Ben will also give every Packer fan a run for their money.
“He starts getting a little crazy just before the game, says his mother. “He has to sit on the end of the couch because he gets up and yells a lot.”
That sounds just like game day around these parts.
Ben also had some things to say to those same fans around here as well. Firstly, he was pretty happy to be featured on the Packers Lounge exclaiming, “Awesome… I have to tell everyone at school!”
Ben continued to explain that his love of football will hopefully translate into a career someday as an employee for ESPN. Then, out of the blue, Ben hit me with a knowledge bomb he wants all of you to hear. He wasn’t too happy with Ted Thompson.
“What is wrong with Ted Thompson,” rants the young Packer backer? “Doesn’t he know about Brett Favre? Doesn’t he know all of his records? I’m going to write Ted Thompson a letter and tell him that he better look up Brett Favre on the Internet!”
As far as meeting Donald Driver is concerned, the trip started out as a promise from Rathkamp, to her son, that he could swim in the hotel pool where they would be staying for this year’s Fan Fest.
When they got to the event, Ben started to get excited when Rathkamp was elated to find a Donald Driver autograph coupon in their Fan Fest book.
“He didn’t understand, so I took him to the coupon trading area and showed him how everyone wanted a Driver ticket,” says Rathkamp. “He got a little more interested. Then I took him to the Pro-Shop and told him to pick something out to have autographed. He picked a football. We got in line and he started to listen to all the stories about Driver as we made our way through the line.”
Thanks to some ‘real’ Packer fans, Ben and his mother averted disaster when someone tried to con Ben out of his chance to meet Driver.
“We almost lost our coupon when I had to leave Ben in line so I could use the restroom, revisits Rathkamp with concern. “As I ran back to get in line with him, some jerk was trying to ‘buy’ Ben’s Driver coupon. Thank God a nice couple in line next to Ben noticed and told the guy to get lost (I love true Packer fans). Ben almost fell for it. That’s a real example of how autistic kids are not able to read people’s intentions.”
After dashing disaster, Ben started to realize he was going to be a part of something special.
“As we got closer, I think Ben realized he was about to meet someone famous and started ‘stimming’, which is rocking and practicing out loud what he’s going to say,” explains Rathkamp. I saw how quickly the security was pushing people through so I warned Ben that he couldn’t ask any questions and just had to get his autograph and move on.”
Ben was not having any of it. Ben walked right up to the table and extended his hand proudly stating, “Hello Mr. Driver. I’m Ben Parsons from Montello Wisconsin.”
Donald took a moment to smile back before extending his hand and replying, “Well, hello Ben. I’m Donald Driver from Houston Texas, nice to meet you.”
Ben went on at length with questions only a 10-year-old would ask as he waited for Driver to sign his football. When the time came, Ben wanted to make sure the moment was perfect.
“Mr. Driver, you have to use the pen that came with the football,” instructed Ben to the all-star wide receiver. “And, can you sign it right here so you don’t cover up the G.”
Donald Driver made the entire day for both Ben and his mother.
“No other player was as gracious and kind as him,” beams Rathkamp. “Marco Rivera came close because I spoke Spanish to him. I know this is really who he (Driver) is. There is nothing pretentious or arrogant about him… this not a man who is in it for just a paycheck. He doesn’t ‘give back’ by just writing a check either. Not to mention he is unbelievably handsome! Man… what a smile!”
This once again confirms that Donald Driver is the real package deal. This also again confirms my belief that Packer fans are the best in the world.
We would like to extend our sincere thanks to Ben and his mother for granting us this interview.
If you would like to know more about autism, or help the cause, I encourage you to visit the Autism Society of Wisconsin’s website. In addition, the ASW of Fox Valley offers an amazing football camp every summer at Xavier High School for kids with autism.
As always, you can also check out the Donald Driver Foundation.
If you have anything you would like to let Ben know, I am sure he would be thrilled to hear it.
Please leave your comments below.
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