Siblings with Down syndrome 'shining beacon' for these players

Zac Stacy, right, an athlete ambassador for the National Down Syndrome Society, launched the inaugural NDSS all-star clinic May 5 at the Vanderbilt indoor practice facility. He's shown with his brother, Justin. Cameron Wolfe/ESPN

NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- Justin Stacy patiently waits in the background, like a shadow, preparing for the next chance to follow his big brother's lead. A stranger introduces himself to Zac Stacy and shakes his hand. Justin hurries to do the same. Zac shows a few kids at this clinic that he's hosting how to complete a "W" football drill. Justin, right on his heels, duplicates it perfectly.

Back home in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, Justin feels comfortable on his own. There, he might be more beloved than his more famous brother, Zac, a former Rams and current CFL running back.

But on this May morning at Vanderbilt's indoor practice facility, Justin is content following his brother, duplicating that wide smile and flashing a peace sign. His energy is contagious. Everyone around is drawn to his aura. He's no different than any other 21-year-old little brother, except he has Down syndrome. Justin leans on Zac for support, leadership and instruction. Justin might be surprised to learn that Zac leans on him just as much.

Zac interrupts the silence to explain.

"He was pretty much my 'why' throughout my whole career," said Zac, who became an athlete ambassador for the National Down Syndrome Society, majored in special education at Vanderbilt and launched this inaugural NDSS all-star clinic because of the lessons Justin taught him. "He's been such an inspiration for me and my career. He's why I do things on and off the field.

"But he's just my little brother. We are trying to take the label away and treat him like everyone else."

Julie Ferrell, a tearful mother, joyfully watched Zac Stacy and Tennessee Titans safety Kevin Byard run through backpedaling drills with her 41-year-old daughter, who also has Down syndrome. It was hard to tell who had the bigger smile, mom or daughter.

"It warms my heart. This is the highlight of our year," Ferrell said. "There aren't many resources for her to do organized exercise. She's often labeled, discarded and not cared about. We try to give them a meaningful life. For NFL players to be out here working with her, it means everything to her and me."

Envying Gwen

"I wish I had the same mindset as Gwen, because she could give a s--- what anybody thinks about her." -- Jake Matthews

Family talks reveal the truth. The honest truth is that sometimes a little envy runs through the Matthews' family blood.

It certainly does with Falcons left tackle Jake Matthews, who will occasionally read social media comments about himself even though rule No. 1 is to never read the comments. The trolls can get rough after a rocky game. He tries to ignore it, then he thinks of Gwen.

In a family of seven siblings, Gwen is the youngest. She's an uber-competitor like all of the Matthews bunch. She's a dance and gymnastics fanatic. She loves to be the star of the show and the life of the party. She's just like your typical teenager, except she has Down syndrome. But Jake often finds himself envying her approach to life.

"She's carefree, accepting and loves unconditionally. If I had a mindset like Gwen does, I would be in a better place right now as a player and a person," Matthews said. "We get so caught up in this world, about how we look, what someone said about us or what the latest trend is. Her goal is to love and be loved. She's content if she meets a new person to give a hug and a big smile. It's so refreshing and a constant reminder."

The Matthews family has learned so much about love, blessings and happiness from Gwen. Jake learned how to be a better football player from Gwen, his "awesome shining beacon."

If you've met Jake, you'll love Gwen. Jake sees so much of himself, his dad, his mom, his sister and his brothers in her. She's a huge football fan and a former cheerleader. But her best skill is her capacity to love.

"Having a kid with Down syndrome is a lot of work, and it's definitely against the norm. If you asked the family right before she was born, 'Do you want a kid with Down syndrome?' we'd probably have said no," Matthews said. "But looking back now, we wouldn't change it for the world. It's been one of the greatest blessings for our family to have her for an example, a true source of love."

Learning from Jamaris

This ever-evolving task is more difficult for Jamison Crowder than mastering the Washington Redskins' playbook, but it's also more important.

Physicality runs in the family, Jamison is finding out recently -- just maybe not in the way he had hoped. His younger brother, Jamaris, has been increasingly more aggressive this year. The Crowder family has been trying to solve the puzzle. They figured out patience is the key.

"A lot of times he's sweet, but sometimes he'll get agitated or try to grab you," Crowder said.

You see, every kid has their own personality, their own uniqueness. That's why Jamison is always learning. Jamaris has non-verbal Down syndrome, so what is simple for Jake Matthews and Zac Stacy might be more complex for Jamison Crowder, but different techniques present more options to figure this thing out.

It's not always smooth sailing. There's no manual. But Crowder can't help but smile at his brother's beauty, even after Jamaris squeezes his arm as hard as he can. There's beauty in the struggle.

"My brother definitely made me a better person," Crowder said. "He helped me become more patient and understanding. He helped me grow into a young man. He gives me more motivation."

Embracing Chris' approach to life

Josh Woodrum knows a lot about deferred dreams. He was cut six times in the first 16 months of his NFL career. But the Baltimore Ravens' backup quarterback is still fighting.

Woodrum learned a lot about resilience from his younger brother, Chris, who has Down syndrome and never had the chance to live out an NFL dream. Chris did have the opportunity to get two gold medals and a silver at the Special Olympics in 2010.

"If he can wake up and be happy and excel in his life, then why do I have the right to sit here and complain about playing football for a living or going to practice or going to meetings," Woodrum told ESPN last year. "I think about that every time I'm tired or don't want to do something. I just think about him. That instantly pushes me through whatever wall I'm hitting."