Battling OCD, kicking for Downingtown East

Posted: October 28, 2012

Chris White stepped back from the holder to attempt the field goal. When he stopped, he brought his arms in front of him and grasped his right thumb with his left hand. He swung his arms behind his back and grasped his thumb again. He then returned his hands in front of his midsection to grip the thumb a third time.

The routine, done early in the Downingtown East football practice, was swift and subtle, almost imperceptible if you weren't looking for it.

Three quick steps.

Much of White's life revolves around the number three, or multiples of three. White, a senior placekicker for East, has obsessive compulsive disorder. The pre-kick routine is one of his rituals. His ritual number is three.

He keeps three balls in his kicking net on game days. Booting them in the same order, he goes through an entire set before he runs onto the field for a kick. When he leaves the field and doesn't think he placed his tee down perfectly, he fixes it three times.

"You can view it as a superstition," White said. "But it's more than a superstition because it happens every day. It's like an everyday thing. Every minute of my life, I'm thinking about it."

In his mind, if he does a task a certain number of times, he's doing it right. If he's doing things right, he thinks, he'll succeed at whatever he's doing.

Downingtown East coach Mike Matta, who called White personable, intelligent, and self-effacing, said the OCD has "not affected him football-wise. I think it's made him better focused on the rudimentary skills of what he has to do to get better. There are certain little things he has to do and process, and I think it's helped him process things better."

White, 18, spoke casually and candidly about the OCD one day last week at practice. He takes medication for the disorder, and that has helped, he said, adding that the OCD almost disappears at times and returns "full-force" at others. When it is under control, he has a lot more free time.

White said he first noticed something was wrong three or four years ago, when he was at someone's house, picked up a pool toy, and repeatedly set it back down and picked it up again, unable to find the right spot for it.

The disorder grew over time. He had to step on certain cracks in the ground or squares on the floor. He climbed stairs three, six, nine, or more times because he thought he didn't do it correctly. He made sure he hit the legs of his desk with his feet a certain number of times before leaving the classroom.

When doing homework with a pen, if he made a mistake, he worked on blocking out the error with ink until the ink box was perfect. The pen would run out of ink in a week, he joked.

"Sometimes I would even make pyramids, showing that getting to the top of the pyramid was kind of like the goal," he said. "It would be all multiples of nines until I got to the top of the pyramids."

Light switches have been his biggest obstacle.

Whether he's turning a light off or on, the ritual is the same: After flipping the switch, he grazes it in an upward motion with his hand three times, or multiples of three. He's not changing the setting, just touching the switch lightly while he lifts his hand.

"I want everything to be going up. I don't want anything to be going down," White said. "It's really hard to explain this kind of stuff, because not a lot of people understand it. But in my mentality, it works.

"Things that go down aren't good, and things that go up are good. So if I finish the light switch going up, everything will be good. And if that refers to my kicking, the ball I kick will go up nice and high, rather than hitting the ground."

At one point, he developed a fear that someone was out to kill him; fears are another OCD symptom. Before going to sleep, he repeatedly checked under his bed and made sure windows were locked and shades were down.

His mother, Stephanie Bournazel, said that White's fear "came to a head" on his 16th birthday, in August 2010.

By the next week, his OCD had been diagnosed, and he soon began taking an antidepressant.

"It calms him down a bit," Bournazel said. "I notice when he's on medication, he's calmer and not as erratic. And I'm not saying erratic in a bad way."

Before last week, White said, only one teammate and Matta knew of the OCD among the Cougars. He said Matta had figured it out.

"He had to do things in a peculiar order," said Matta, who also is a guidance counselor at the school. "He would touch things or organize things that didn't need to be organized, like in the weight room or with his footballs."

White, who would like to kick and study criminal justice in college, thinks his OCD has helped improve his kicking. At practice, the Cougars, as all teams do, concentrate mostly on offense and defense. Without a kicking coach, White is largely on his own.

"Usually I'm alone and no one's really pushing me," he said. "And OCD kind of helped me do that by saying, 'Oh, you have to do this three times a day. You have to kick this ball nine times. You have to warm up this many times.' "

White can't stop at two. If he has to do something more than once, it has to be done three times, or in multiples of three.

That helped get him in trouble at school earlier this fall.

In his sophomore and junior years, he received a pass to park in Downingtown East's upper lot, which lies closer to the school than the lower lot. Select students and those with medical needs received upper-lot passes, White said, and he qualified as a sophomore because he had surgery on a broken left ankle and as a junior because he had undergone a procedure to remove two screws from the ankle.

This fall, unable to get a pass for Year 3 - his ritual number - he created a likeness of the pass. The school eventually caught on. He ended up with detention for three days, he said.

Because of detention, he couldn't practice. Because he couldn't practice, he wasn't allowed to play Oct. 12 against Bishop Shanahan.

White has benefited from Downingtown East's high-powered offense this season; the 9-0 Cougars are ranked No. 2 in Southeastern Pennsylvania. He has kicked 38 extra points. He has missed one (bad snap), and two have been blocked, a fact Matta attributed to blocking issues.

White, though, hasn't kicked any field goals. Neither has he tried any, which isn't that unusual for a Matta-coached team.

But White did succeed on his one shot at being a hero. On Sept. 21, East trailed Coatesville by six points until quarterback Kyle Lauletta hit wideout Jay Harris for a 10-yard touchdown pass with no time on the clock. White came in for the potential game-winning kick.

It deflected off the left upright and fell over the crossbar for a 35-34 victory.

Similar to his approach to his OCD, White took the near-miss in stride.

He went right over to Matta. "Had it all the way, Coach," he said.


Contact Lou Rabito at 215-854-2916 or rabitol@phillynews.com.

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