Haley Bucholz stood in the hallway during recess, his teacher unaware he could hear what she was saying to his mother in the classroom. He was in third grade, years away from verbally committing to play football for the University of North Dakota.
He stood in the hallway to overhear the teacher tell his mother he was hopeless.
Bucholz often missed recess. He was either slow to finish his math or made to stay by his teachers because he wasn't grasping a lesson. He didn't know what was wrong with him. Written words and numbers didn't register with him. He was terrified to write anything on the board and never would read aloud in front of the class. It seemed so simple for his friends and classmates. It seemed impossible for him.
Bucholz has dyslexia, a learning disorder that affects areas of the brain that process language. He had spent months traveling to St. Paul every Saturday and Sunday for six or seven hours of tutoring each day to catch up with his classmates after falling behind in first grade.
"It's amazing to get what a lot of people don't think you're ever going to get," said Bucholz, now a senior at Fargo Shanley. "This is about showing kids with learning disabilities that they can do anything, as long as they tell their peers what they have and those people have their back. We all learn differently."
'There were a lot of tears'
Bucholz's mom, Kari, never noticed her youngest child stand out on the football field. She didn't look for that. She didn't care if he was good at football.
He learned time by the length of Disney movies. Instead of telling him that supper would be ready in two hours, she'd say it'd be ready in one movie. He learned how to get places based off of remembering things along the route like an interesting house, a light pole or a pothole. When he was younger he often didn't know what day or month it was. It took tutoring every day to get him caught up with his classmates' reading level in middle school. He still can't write on a whiteboard in front of people and most likely will never be able to.
Kari does not watch Haley play football because he's good at it. She doesn't care about his 253 rushing yards, 371 receiving yards, three interceptions, 40½ tackles or five touchdowns from his junior season. She doesn't care about his three catches for 211 yards and two touchdowns last Friday against Jamestown. She watches him on the football field to see him smile. She sees him doing something that comes naturally after watching him work so hard for nearly everything else.
"It's one of those things he can do without thinking," Kari said. "He has had to deal every day with something coming at him in school or life as a curveball. He doesn't have to work so hard on the field to have fun. This is like his gift for struggling through these other things."
Bucholz was able to use words well beyond his age at around 4 or 5 years old. His verbal communication with adults and interaction with other children was very good before entering the school system. Once he got to preschool he couldn't interact with typed words, didn't like reading in a group, didn't know his ABCs and wasn't understanding how to read smaller words.
"If you can't read words you can't write words," Kari said. "If you can't write words you can't express how much information you have or how smart you are."
Kari watched her son come home each day with less and less confidence. Doctors tested his hearing, sight, nervous system. There was no answer.
"There were a lot of tears, a lot of loss of confidence, a lot of frustration and anxiety trying to do homework," Kari said. "We fought all the time. We got a private tutor before first grade, but that sad, little boy came back like a freight train in first grade. I couldn't figure it out. I didn't know what he needed. He didn't know how to tell me what he needed."
In first grade, they stopped everything. Kari did some research and they tried some tutoring in St. Paul at the "Learn to Learn" private tutoring center. They did that for six months until Kari was able to tutor Haley herself.
"When I got to first grade it really hit me hard how far behind I was," Haley said. "When I was younger I had no self-confidence. I was full of anxiety, I was insecure. You feel kind of left alone, alone with everyone else succeeding and doing well and everyone is getting compliments. They'd get stickers for spelling tests and a smiley face on their math quiz. I wanted so bad to get a sticker or a smiley face."
'Football has always been my release'
Football came with struggles as well. Haley was yelled at constantly because he'd go the wrong way on a play. He used to write "R" on his right hand and "L" on his left. He'd have 2468 on his right hand and 1357 on his left, so he knew which gap to run through if he was handed the ball. He soon realized defenses knew which way he was going based on what hand he lifted up to his face before each play, so he started raising both before every play.
"I've been blessed to have every coach adjust when I've told them what I have and this is the way it's going to be," Haley said. "I'd always tell them that I might not get it right away, but if you believe in me and trust me, I'll eventually get it and give it my all. Everyone has done that for me and I couldn't ask for more."
Shanley's plays do not have the words "right" or "left," but "ours" and "theirs" to represent which sideline the play is going to, so Haley knows the direction of the play.
"It's a really cool story," Shanley head football coach Troy Mattern said. "It's amazing what he's overcome to become a Division I athlete."
Haley went to Landmark School in Beverly, Mass., the summer before eighth grade. Landmark is a school for children with language-based learning disabilities. He said it was the greatest experience of his life. He made friends from Greece, Egypt, Australia and Spain, some of whom he still keeps in contact with. There was only one reason he didn't stay at Landmark when fall came around. It didn't have a football team.
"Football has always been my release," Haley said. "I couldn't go to school and not play football."
Kari cried in the car when she was told Haley was hopeless in third grade. She told him she was going to do everything she possibly could to make sure he was successful. Haley would go to school, do his homework with his parents and for 30 minutes every night he would study reading comprehension. Things began to click before high school.
Haley has a 3.8 grade-point average at Shanley. The only thing he does differently is essay questions on tests. He will write bullet points and have to orally explain his answer to teachers.
Haley found a way to learn. His calendar on his phone is detailed, everything in his locker is organized and color-coordinated. He can't list the months, but he knows what day and month it is.
His older sister is studying to be a neurosurgeon. He says he'd love to have even a little bit of her brain and he'd trade in all his athleticism for it. At the same time, his path is his.
"I love the way I am," Haley said. "I can have a severe learning disability and still be successful. It's OK to be different, not on pace sometimes."
Kari started Haley's Hope in 2011, a non-profit organization based in West Fargo that will help build literacy skills, confidence and tutoring for those with dyslexia. She was an interior designer before her path changed with Haley.
"We just knew we needed to help more kids," Kari said. "We're a full learning center. We do whatever it takes to help our kids."
Every once in awhile Haley will look at his mom and ask if she can believe he's going to college. From second grade until high school he would ask her if she thought he was going to be able to pass and move on to the next grade. He eventually changed the question to whether or not she thought he'd graduate high school and he'd say to her that he probably won't be able to go to college.
His directions to college may not be what people are normally accustomed to, but he's getting there his own way.
"It may take me longer to learn things, but at the end of the day I'll get there," Haley said. "Dyslexia is something I'm very proud of. I think it was a gift given to me. I couldn't be happier with how I turned out."