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Beyond the Game: Friendship binds star quarterback, boy with autism

Austin and Austin (Photo: KATV)
Austin and Austin (Photo: KATV)
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Austin Ledbetter is the starting quarterback for Bryant High School. Austin Thibeau is a 9-year-old boy with autism. But they share a heartwarming bond that breaks the mold.

This unlikely friendship began a few weeks ago. Thibeau, an avid sports fan, attends Bryant games on Friday nights.

"He asked me to take him to a game this year because he started peewee football," said Tosha Thibeau, Austin's mom. "He wanted to see how the big kids do it and after I took him, that was it. He was hooked. It just took one game for him to be obsessed with Austin Ledbetter."

During games, Thibeau can be seen - and more easily heard - cheering for his idol. In fact, he lives vicariously through the Hornets' quarterback, whooping and hollering on every down.

Word tends to spread nowadays, and thanks in part to Thibeau's teachers, Ledbetter's parents heard about their son's biggest fan. He promptly invited the boy who happens to share his name to take a picture after a game.

"It was almost like the seas parted," Tosha said. "The crowd just moved and there he was, and [our son] was just like, 'oh my gosh!'"

"My dream came true," the 9-year-old boy exclaimed.

That quick hello was just the beginning of what's become a true rapport.

"He made a deal with me that if I watch his games, he comes to my games," Austin Thibeau said.

The very next day, the high school quarterback followed through with his promise. He surprised Thibeau at his peewee football game.

"Every single time he made a play, he ran off that field and high-fives Austin Ledbetter," Tosha said.

"Just to see that smile on his face melts my heart. It made me feel really good," Ledbetter said. "He wanted to be my best buddy. I kind of fell in love with the kid."

After every Friday night game, they now embrace. Thibeau meets Ledbetter outside the locker room.

Bridging the gap to a child with autism can be challenging, but the star quarterback seems to be a natural. Further, Austin and Austin appear equally affected by the newfound friendship. Ledbetter placed a sticker with the autism logo on the back of his helmet.

Thibeau's parents notice a new confidence in their son.

"Sometimes he just has to work a little bit harder, but to now not want to give up just because of this one person is amazing," Tosha said.

Ledbetter is committed to play baseball at the University of Arkansas. It should come as no surprise that Thibeau wants to try the sport.

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