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Youth football league’s gesture raises spirits, awareness



By John Dahlia

Preston County News & Journal

Handing Eli the Game Ball copy
Members of the Terra Alta Dolphins, along with Terra Alta Black Eagles head coach Alex Rocha hand Eli DeWitt the game ball on Thursday night. Photo by William Wotring, Preston County News & Journal The Terra Alta Dolphins front line:  The Terra Alta Dolphins front line stands ready to block for Eli DeWitt for his big touchdown play. Terra Alta Black Eagles head coach Alex Rocha gets ready to push Eli to the end zone.

TERRA ALTA, W.Va. — A recent Preston County Youth Football League playoff game between the Kingwood Stags and the Terra Alta Dolphins was anything but routine. Both teams put aside competitive spirit so they could give one extraordinary 3-year-old and his family a moment they will never forget.

Eli DeWitt of Terra Alta, who was born with the extremely rare disorder called Cornelia de Lange Syndrome (CdLS), was added to the Dolphins roster for one play where he, with the help of Black Eagles head coach Alex Rocha, scored a touchdown.

Rocha, who has a 4-year-old son of his own, said he was inspired to help Eli and his family partly because he was grateful his son was healthy and partly because he wanted to make a difference.

“Honestly,” Rocha admitted, “I’m just happy to do something. I wish more people out there would step up and do something. We need to get the word out and help.”

So Rocha made a few calls to some folks connected to the Terra Alta Youth Football League, including Dolphin coach Jason Reckart and league board member Jennifer Palmer to see how they could not only help raise money for the family, but give Eli a memory he’ll not soon forget.

Handing Eli the Game Ball copy
The Terra Alta Dolphins front line stands ready to block for Eli DeWitt for his big touchdown play. Terra Alta Black Eagles head coach Alex Rocha gets ready to push Eli to the end zone.

“That’s when the ball got rolling,” Rocha said.

They quickly decided they should hold this special event for Eli at the very next game, which just so happened to be a playoff game in Terra Alta against the rival Kingwood Stags. Of course, head coach Robbie Bishop was all too happy to lend a hand.

“We explained to our kids how fortunate they are to be on a football field,” Bishop said. “I’m glad both communities did this together for Eli. This was great.”

Once all the details were worked out, all Rocha had left to worry about was being able to run 50 yards downfield while pushing Eli’s wheelchair and avoiding players from the Stags and Dolphins.

“It makes me feel good, and I know the good Lord will reward me for this,” Rocha added.

But the special night for Eli at East Preston Shaw Memorial Field was a lot more than a touchdown. As Rocha put it, the idea was to raise both awareness and dollars for Eli and his family. The family has been raising money so they can take Eli to the CdLS Foundation National Family Conference, held in Orlando, Florida, on June 23-26, 2016. Eli’s mom, Bethany Uphold said her son and family would benefit by attending.

“Since Eli has CdLS, he can attend for free, but we all need to be there too,” Uphold said.

Those who attend receive free head-to-toe consultations with experts from a range of medical and educational fields; attend workshops on legal concerns, educational issues and medical/behaviors challenges; and have opportunities to meet other families facing similar challenges.

“We’ll get to meet other families too,” Uphold explained. “We’ll meet with a specialist and therapists in this syndrome.”

How rare is CdLS? CdLS is estimated to be 1 in 10,000 live births. The genetic disorder is congenital, but not always diagnosed at birth. It causes a range of physical, cognitive and medical challenges and affects both genders equally.

Eli’s grandmother, Lori Uphold, could barely hold back her excitement for Eli and Preston County.

“It’s amazing seeing the community come together and give support for Eli. Not very many people around here have seen a child with this syndrome. I’m really proud to be his grandmother. It shows what kind of love they have for their children in the community.”

The touchdown run took place at halftime of the Dolphin-Stags game on Thursday, Oct. 15. Once the play was called and the ball placed on Eli’s lap, Rocha took a deep breath and pushed the boy’s wheelchair 50 yards in a kind-of sweep route.

Once Eli and “football chauffeur” Rocha crossed the goal line, the small stadium erupted as the hundred or so attending cheered, “Touchdown Eli!”

The Terra Alta Youth Football League raised $172 donated to the family from the 5/50 drawing. They also raised an additional $15 from concession sales. Delano’s Furniture and Mattress, where Rocha works, donated $100 to the family as well.

Donations can be sent to a Go Fund Me website titled: “Help Eli attend CdLS Conference ’16,” which can be found at

The exclusive video of Eli’s touchdown can be found at the Preston County News & Journal’s YouTube Channel: Preston News & Journal.



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