HOULTON, Maine — A warm late-summer afternoon was like any other practice opportunity for the Houlton High School football team.
More than 35 Shiretowners methodically went about conditioning drills before turning to refining the plays designed to beat their next opponent, and their uniform look in practice jerseys, shoulder pads and black-and-white helmets served to emphasize the team concept rather than the individuals within the roster.
That’s just the way Isaac Lufkin likes it.
A 16-year-old junior on coach Brian Reynolds’ club, Lufkin loves both the collisions and camaraderie that come from playing football and is having an impact on his team, as well as its opponents, despite being born with no arms.
The 5-foot-8, 110-pound Lufkin serves as a place kicker and defensive nose tackle, seeing most of his duty at the junior varsity level but relishing the chance to be part of the rebirth of football at Houlton — where the Shiretowners started the second season of their reincarnation as a varsity sport with a 2-1 record heading into Friday night’s game at undefeated Medomak Valley of Waldoboro.
“I just like the contact,” said Lufkin, who also enjoys listening to Eminem and whose favorite player is former Baltimore Ravens linebacker Ray Lewis. “It’s something that’s fun, and I’m just happy being on the team anyplace as long as I can help.”
Lufkin already has had a historic moment this season, kicking the first successful extra point of Houlton’s modern football tenure during a preseason game against John Bapst of Bangor.
“After the game when he came through the line I gave him the game ball,” John Bapst head coach Dan O’Connell said. “I said it wasn’t because of the fact that you don’t have arms, it’s about the fact that you’re doing what you’re doing and inspiring people — I know for one we are inspired by what you’re doing, so keep it going.”
The opportunity to play on the line for the first time in his young football career has added fuel to Lufkin’s determination not only to inspire but to help his team succeed.
“I’m getting better at it,” Lufkin said. “I haven’t figured out how to tackle yet, though, and I’m not very big so that’s a struggle at times.
“But I like being part of a team because you’re with guys who have your back and you can have their backs. It’s more just about having that trust.”
It’s trust his teammates, particularly his comrades along the line of scrimmage, eagerly share.
“His positive attitude is like an aura,” Houlton freshman lineman Dolton Nason said. “He makes the best of every situation and that just kind of spreads around the team.”
Getting his kicks
Much of Lufkin’s early physical activity was focused on developing core strength and flexibility that allow him to use his legs and feet to perform basic activities such as dressing himself and writing.
That, combined with the mantra “If I can’t then I won’t” stressed with him by his mother, Lori Williams, provided much of the motivation for Lufkin to develop independent living skills and become a problem solver.
That was accomplished without the use of prosthetic limbs, which Lufkin tried but opted against because he had become so adept at using his feet that artificial arms might hinder further development.
“I use my feet for mostly everything,” Lufkin said. “Other people teach me to do things, too, and if I see something done, sometimes I try to do it in a way that works for me.”
Lufkin’s use of his highly developed core and lower-body strength initially did not include organized sports.
“I never really did sports when I was little because people didn’t think I could do it,” he said. “I just kind of knew about them.”
He dabbled with soccer but by age 10 was drawn to the aggressive nature of football.
“Normally, I would be playing soccer, but football feels like more of a team game for me,” Lufkin said. “In soccer you help the next person you’re passing to. In football every single person helps make the play.”
Lufkin first concentrated on kicking and taking advantage of his leg strength, which led to worldwide attention as a high school freshman playing football in Providence, Rhode Island.
Using his kicking accuracy and knack for effective onside kicks that could be recovered by teammates, he helped Classical High School to the 2013 Division II freshman football state championship.
Classical High, ironically, had a previous armless kicker, Chris Schumman, who helped its 1963 team win a state title.
“Classical gave Isaac a shot,” Williams said, “and his passion for football kind of grew after that because they didn’t treat him any differently. They didn’t tell him he couldn’t do it.”
While the mere chance to compete was a significant reward, Lufkin’s story was featured on CNN’s “The Situation Room.” He subsequently was interviewed by television personalities Glenn Beck and Arsenio Hall and invited with his mother by the National Football League to attend Super Bowl XLVIII between the Seattle Seahawks and Denver Broncos.
While at the Super Bowl, Lufkin was visited in his suite by former President Bill Clinton, and he later received a letter of commendation from President Barack Obama.
“It was a blowout game [Seattle won 43-8], but it was fun,” Lufkin said.
Home on the line
Lufkin and his mother moved last October back to her native Houlton, where she since has remarried.
Lufkin enrolled at Houlton High School and joined the Shiretowners’ outdoor track team last spring, competing in the long jump and sprints.
“I was not very good,” he said. “I just wasn’t in shape.”
Conditioning was less of an issue when Lufkin joined the Houlton football program for preseason practices in mid-August.
“His leg strength and his core strength were definitely a benefit for him,” Reynolds said. “You can see how he gets it in how he dresses and when you see him put the ball on the tee. He does all of our exercises, sometimes he has to put his own touch on it but he does them all. He never wants to sit back, he never wants to be a spectator.”
While Lufkin had an established reputation as a kicker, he sought a more active role on his new team.
“I asked him what he wanted to do so I could help him be a better player and he said, ‘I’d kind of like to try the line,’” Reynolds said. “I said, ‘How about nose guard,’ and he said ‘sounds good.’”
Lufkin is joined by Nason, Jordan Hostetler and Colby Callnan along the front line for Houlton’s junior varsity defense.
“There’s really no difference with Isaac except he’s very quick,” Nason said. “He can get a lot lower and then hit somebody mid-body before they can react.”
Early in the season Lufkin’s quickness occasionally worked against him, particularly without a corresponding ability to wrap his arms around the ball carrier.
“He’s fairly quick,” Reynolds said, “so his first couple of plays on the line he just knifed right between the guard and the center and got in the offensive backfield and bumped into people, but they eventually figured out a blocking scheme for him and it went from trying to get past people to occupying people.”
That’s been one of the biggest adjustments for Lufkin, being content as a nose tackle with occupying offensive linemen so his teammates can make the tackles.
“Most of the time at this level it’s jet sweeps and outside pitches so I just read the play and if it comes to the middle I try to stop it and if it goes outside I try to get blocked so that gives someone else a chance to make the play,” he said.
Lufkin typically gives away considerable size to his opponent, but his response reflects how he has dealt with challenges throughout his life.
“On the third or fourth play of our [JV] game against Dexter he really got knocked over but he was right back up again,” Reynolds said. “I think they thought they’d knock him down and he’d stay down, but he doesn’t and that’s kind of the whole concept he brings to the team, that he doesn’t give up.”
Lufkin’s teammates readily acknowledge that contribution.
“It’s great to see someone trying to do stuff that people usually think they can’t do,” Hostetler said. “He fits right in with us and it’s helped us become a better team together.”
The relationship also has been valuable to Isaac Lufkin.
“We learn what each other’s strengths and weaknesses are,” he said. “Someone’s weakness might be someone else’s strength, so we help each other.”