The Investigators

Jul 22, 2013 1:00 AM by Matthew Schwartz

Was autistic former UA kicker discriminated against?

Jesse Ortiz was a first team All-Region kicker at Peoria's Centennial High School. He was a national semi-finalist for the 2009 Rudy award, named after the inspirational former Notre Dame player. Ortiz's dream since ninth grade was to play football for the University of Arizona. A common dream, but an uncommon young man. Jesse Ortiz is autistic.

"It was probably a dream that I thought I never could have reached before"," Ortiz told the News 4 Tucson Investigators about his goal to play for U of A.

We met with the 21 year-old at a Tucson football field. Jesse's autism wasn't apparent to us during the hour and a half we spent with him. But that's not unusual with autism, which is a brain disorder with varying degrees of severity. It affects a person's ability to communicate, reason and interact with others.

Jesse said he pushed aside his autism in his effort to make the Wildcats' team. "I just pushed that aside and I pushed myself to do it, then I stuck strong and I started to believe in the goal a lot more and it took a lot of work for me to achieve that goal."

In August, 2010 Jesse's dream came true. He made the team as a walk-on.

Jesse says when he found out he made the team, "I just couldn't stop talking about it. I mean, I lit up literally like a Christmas tree. I was so excited, called my folks and it was something I was really excited to be on and I couldn't wait any longer to be in the locker room of U of A."

Jesse was on the Wildcats for the 2010 and 2011 seasons under then Coach Mike Stoops, never getting on the field but thrilled just to suit-up for home games. But jesse says in the summer of 2012, under new Coach Rich Rodriguez, he was cut.

"It practically devastated me," Ortiz told us, "Because not only a coach didn't tell me anything about me being cut from the team, but also those dreams, that hard work, that effort that I have ever put into the program just kind of shattered and ever since then I've just been embarrassed."

Jesse says an equipment manager, and not a coach, told him he was cut.
When asked why he thinks he was released, Jesse said, " To be honest, I don't know."

We went to Jesse's parents' home in Peoria and spoke with his mother, Margaret. She thinks she knows why her son was cut.

"I believe that it was a case of discrimination," Margaret Ortiz says.

Margaret Ortiz believes her son was cut because the coaches didn't want to deal with his autism. She has has filed a complaint with the U.S. Department of Education's Office For Civil Rights, alleging that Jesse was discrminated against on the basis of disability.

Mrs. Ortiz said, "I think that it was just a matter of a lot of people in society will shun a person with a disability. I can't imagine what other reason it would have been for. Why?"

The Office For Civil Rights sent Mrs. Ortiz a letter recently, saying, "We are opening this allegation for investigation."

The News 4 Tucson Investigators requested an interview with U of A Athletics Director Greg Byrne and Coach Rodriquez, but they declined. Through a spokesman, Byrne issued this statement:

"The University and Department of Intercollegiate Athletics take all allegations of discrimination extremely seriously, and we are following our standard procedures in addressing and responding to this type of complaint. While federal law, which protects students' privacy, prevents University officials from discussing any details regarding this matter, the University can state that Coach Rodriguez evaluates and meets with each player every spring to discuss that player's status with the team, and players are evaluated on the extent to which they can contribute to a Division i program and the success of the University's football team."

Meanwhile, Jesse Ortiz, who coached Special Olympics flag football for three years, will return to the U of A for his senior year. An education major, he wants to be a pre-school special ed teacher, helping kids with, among other disorders, autism.

We asked Jesse how badly he would like to return to the Wildcats' football team. He said, "Tell me what I need to do, I'll do it. You tell me jump, I'll say how high?

The Office For Civil Rights doesn't comment on pending cases, but said in its letter to Margaret Ortiz "We intend to conduct a prompt investigation of this complaint."

The outcome could be signficant for U of A, because it receives federal funds.

Remember, if you have a story you'd like us to investigate, please email us at investigators@kvoa.com.

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