Editor's note: This story is featured in the Daily Citizen-News' weekly high school football Touchdown! section. Grab an issue in papers on Fridays during football season, or stop by our office for a copy.
There is something different about Colby Stringer, but he's not different.
Stringer is a senior at Southeast Whitfield High School.
He is a football player.
He is a teammate and a student, and he is autistic.
Stringer was diagnosed with autism at age 7. The developmental disorder is measured on a scale, or spectrum, with Stringer's specific diagnosis of Asperger syndrome, characterized as a milder form of the disorder as the person has relatively normal language and intelligence. He also lies on the border of having an intellectual disability, also known as mental retardation, and has dyslexia.
When one first meets Stringer, however, it's easy to look past all of those challenges.
"He's never, ever met a stranger," said Southeast coach Sean Gray. "He's one of a kind, that's for sure."
Stringer, who plays defensive end for a majority of his time on the Raiders' junior varsity team, is known for his dedication not just to the game, but to people.
He wears his letterman jacket whenever he can, even in the 90-degree weather, and makes sure he's always around.
"I think in four years, he might have missed one practice," Gray said. "He's always here and he'll do anything you need. If we've got a work day or a volunteer day, I promise you that he's the first one there and the last one there -- every single time."
For Stringer, not being around is a missed opportunity.
"The person who misses has a chance to lose out on his spot or miss out on something else," he said. "I came to practice all summer for all four years to prove everyone wrong. It feels pretty good."
In fact, Stringer has long been on a mission to change people's minds.
"Some people thought that I couldn't play football because of my disabilities," he said. "I do it to prove people wrong, and I'm now one of the fastest players on JV. They all can eat my dust.
"People think I'm different, but I overcame my disabilities a long time ago."
During school, Stringer is in regular classes, yet has an Individualized Education Program for when he needs extra help. He is expected to graduate this spring with his Raider classmates and receive the same diploma as a regular student.
Thinking back to when Stringer was a child, his mother Sherry Keating remembers seeing some developmental delays in her son.
"I kind of had thoughts that there was something, but honestly autism was not one of them," Keating said. "Colby is the most amazing, outgoing and greatest heart I've ever known, so that kind of took care of it.
"Colby may not have gone through what someone has gone through, but it's like his emotions are triggered into someone else's which allows him to be extra empathic. I don't know how he can, it's just like he knows how to make someone feel better. He's got literally a heart of gold."
Keating also has another son, Stringer's older brother, who is on the autism spectrum. Her daughter, the oldest, is not.
Stringer began playing football at Valley Point Middle School, but when he was nearing high school, Keating remembers having a few doubts.
"I told him the thing was that when he started, he was going to be treated like everyone else," she said. "They are going to tackle you, they are going to rush you and they are going to treat you just like anyone else."
Now he's a senior, time is flying by, she said. Keating attends junior varsity games on Thursdays and varsity games on Fridays.
Things seem to have worked out just fine.
"There's something about that school, it just makes you feel like you're at home," Keating said. "Colby is such an influential person to a lot of people, and at the games the student section pretty much always chants his name. I have a feeling that a bunch of them will want to go to his graduation just so they do it one last time.
"It feels so good and warm to me that he has so many friends out there."
Fellow senior and Raiders quarterback Adam Sowder agreed with Keating about Stringer's impact.
"He definitely brings some comedic relief," Sowder said with a smile. "He likes to pick on people, but we pick on him a little bit back because he always starts it. It's just fun to have him around. He jokes around a good bit, but he's also a really hard worker."
Stringer and the other senior Raiders continue their final season tonight at 7:30 when Southeast (0-6, 0-2 in Region 6-4A) hosts Gilmer for Homecoming. Though his team has yet to win a game during his senior campaign, it hasn't stopped Stringer from loving the sport.
The best part about playing football?
"Crushing my enemies," Stringer said. "When I'm on that football field, all I'm focused on is going against my rival and taking down the other person.
"It clears my mind when I'm on that field. When I have some problems with like reading, I don't think of those when I play football. I just play. What I'm really dreaming of is to go to the playoffs."
If that doesn't happen?
"Well, then I'm out of luck," he said as he shrugged. "I'd like to have at least a few good wins if not."
Even if the Raiders aren't able to win a few games, Gray said there's still something to be happy about.
"I became a head coach, at that time it was all about winning," he said. "Even when I came to Southeast eight years ago, it was all about winning. Now I think it's more about me wanting to provide a safe environment for the kids where they feel comfortable and they have a place where they know they are welcome and someone cares about them. We want them to know that we are going to look after them.
"There are some moments when you feel like you are making a difference in the community, and with Colby this will be something he will always look back on and be proud of."
Gray encourages his players to go outside the lines of the football field to help others, as well. This past weekend, the Raiders took Saturday to help out at Whitfield County's Miracle League, which allows children and adults with mental and physical challenges to play baseball.
When Stringer was a child, he played in the Miracle League. On Saturday, he was a volunteer.
"It's very rewarding to see them giving back to another person, and a lot of times people have a stereotype that athletes are not nice to everyone," Gray said. "That's the farthest thing from the truth most of the time."
Keating said after high school, Stringer wants to go back to playing baseball since football won't be conflicting with the Miracle League's schedule anymore. She also said she isn't quite sure what the future hold for her son, but she wouldn't be surprised if he landed a job working with computers, possibly designing video games, another one of his interests.
Whatever happens, Keating said she is confident that Stringer will continue to conquer the odds.
"He has always had a special place in my heart, because in my mind he's still my little baby," she said. "I think I'm actually the lucky one to be his mom. I really do.
"Who is actually the one to define what normal is? An autistic child is no different than you and I. That's what I want people to know. They can drive, they can play football, they can cheerlead and they can do anything else that anybody else can do."
TONIGHT'S OTHER GAMES
Trion (5-1, 2-1 in Region 6-A) at Christian Heritage (4-1, 1-1 in Region 6-A), 7:30 p.m.
Christian Heritage is looking to bounce back from its first loss of the season as it hosts Trion for Homecoming.
The Lions fell in a back-and-forth match with Darlington last week, 29-22, as Evan Lester was responsible for all three touchdowns. He caught two touchdown passes from Christian Thomas and rushed for another, and Joe Dixon added a field goal.
Trion is coming off a win last week over Mount Zion, 12-6.
Last meeting: Trion won in 2018, 26-7.
Coahulla Creek (1-4, 0-3 in Region 6-3A) at North Murray (5-1, 4-0 in Region 6-3A), 7:30 p.m.
North Murray hosts Coahulla Creek for a region matchup.
The Colts fell to Haralson County last week, 46-14. They scored touchdowns on a pass to Hunter Lanier from Mason Turner and a run by Austin Hernandez.
North Murray is looking to win its sixth straight game and to keep its region record unblemished after defeating Murray County last week, 42-16. Senior Ladd McConkey led the Mountaineers by throwing two touchdown passes and scoring another on a kickoff return. Noah Lunsford scored twice on touchdown runs.
Last meeting: North Murray won in 2018, 35-14.
South Cobb (1-5, 1-3 in Region 6-6A) at Dalton (5-1, 3-1 in Region 6-6A), 7:30 p.m.
Dalton celebrates Homecoming tonight as it hosts South Cobb.
The Catamounts are coming off a win over River Ridge last week, 34-7. Senior running back Jahmyr Gibbs scored four times and rushed for more than 300 yards as the Georgia Tech commit now has 1,690 yards on the ground this season and 29 total touchdowns.
South Cobb won its first game of the season last week over Osborne, 22-19.
Last meeting: Dalton won in 2018, 45-20.
LaFayette (3-3, 1-1 in Region 6-4A) at Northwest Whitfield (4-1, 1-0 in Region 6-4A), 7:30 p.m.
Northwest hosts LaFayette in a region game for Homecoming.
The Bruins won their region-opener last week on the road over Ridgeland, 27-16. Quarterback Owen Brooker rushed for two touchdowns and threw for another to Preston Nealey to lead the team. Yahir Zapata kicked two field goals.
LaFayette fell to Heritage in a close game last week, 37-34.
Last meeting: Northwest won in 2018, 36-14.
Murray County (3-3, 1-3 in Region 6-3A) at Ringgold (0-6, 0-4 in Region 6-3A, 7:30 p.m.
Murray County travels to Ringgold for a region matchup.
The Indians fell to North Murray last week, 42-16. Jason Rice and Davis Redwine each caught touchdown passes.
Ringgold fell to Sonoraville last week, 41-0.
Last meeting: Ringgold won in 2018, 42-7.