Zavala remains unique

Newport Harbor High freshman, who starts on defensive line, won't let autism get in the way of being a standout player.

November 03, 2010|By Matt Szabo,
(Don Leach / Daily…)

Joe Zavala calls himself a stump among trees on the football field.

The Newport Harbor High freshman is listed at 238 pounds. He's also just 5-foot-6, so the nose guard position on the defensive line fits him well.

But even stumps have roots, and Joe Zavala's are so strong.

Fans who watch the Sailors' freshman football games will see No. 65 play relentless, never giving up. Yet, very few of those people know the challenges he's overcome.

Joe is autistic. He was diagnosed when he was just 2 years old.

And, by the way, it defines him less than ever.

"We don't talk about it anymore," said his mother, Peggy Zavala. "There's no reason to. He catches it before it gets too bad anymore."

The Zavalas decided not to let the Newport Harbor coaching staff know about Joe's condition at the start of the season. Coach Joe Urban said he was surprised when he found out.


Joe Zavala's journey has been no less surprising. He was first featured in the Daily Pilot four years ago, back when everyone called him Joseph and he was finishing up his first year of football in Costa Mesa Pop Warner. He had to make weight for that Junior Midget team. Then he did it again the next year, and the next year.

Every year, he lost at least 20 pounds. Robert Murtha, Sr. remembers when Joe was on his Midget team two years ago. That team won the league and went on to a Sun Bowl game in San Diego, behind such talented players like Murtha's son, also named Robert, and Deionte' Haywood, who are both now sophomores on Estancia's varsity team.

Robert calls his son "Boy," and "Boy" was always there to encourage Joe that year. When the team would do "bear crawls," Joe was usually bringing up the rear.

But he was always there.

"No way!" Robert Murtha, Sr. said when he heard Joe was starting on the Sailors' defensive line. Then, he thought about it.

"Actually, I take that back," Murtha said. "It doesn't surprise me at all. You just don't expect something like that out of a kid like that. I didn't expect him to last on our team. We just kept pushing him, but he still showed up everyday. That boy did everything in his power to make weight. He was an inspiration to the team."

During his Pop Warner days, Joe Zavala also took up baseball in the spring, playing in Costa Mesa American Little League. But last year, he left football for a year.

"His last year we said, 'You know what, enjoy your summer, have some ice cream,' " Peggy Zavala said.

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