Eight-year-old Will Fowler is like many boys his age. He loves sharks and dinosaurs, and digging in the dirt for fossils and rocks. He watches TV and admires his older brother.
Will loves to ice skate and play hockey as well, and doesn't let the congenital amyoplasia arthrogryposis that affects the muscles and joints in his lower body stop him from doing it.
"Will is fearless and indestructible. He is light and life and pure joy," Will's mother, Ashley Fowler, said. "He embodies what childhood should be. Every day is a blessing to him. He has one speed, and it's just go and he is going to squeeze every drop of life out of every day that he can get."
With his older brother Grant playing in a youth hockey league at Ford Ice Center, Will spent a lot of time at the rink cheering on his brother or attending public skate sessions with his family.
"I had taken the boys skating, which for Will basically means that I pushed him around the ice because he couldn't even stand up," Fowler said. "One of the Ford staff members came up to me after the skating session was over and said, 'Ma'am, did you know that there is a program here at Ford designed for children with special needs?'"
Will's mom looked into Scott Hamilton All-Stars, a program providing Learn to Skate classes, and signed Will up immediately.
At All-Stars, Will met Coach Cody Howard, who helped Will get comfortable on the ice. Howard and Scott Hamilton Skating Academy Manager Paula Trujillo even helped find Will skates that would fit over his leg braces and provide him enough ankle support.
"The only thing that mattered to Will was that they were girls' figure skates that were white. Somebody at Ford spent who knows how long cutting up pieces of black duct tape to cover the skates so they would look like black skates, they would look like boy's skates," Fowler said with a smile. "That's all he cared about."
Will instantly became enthralled with skating. Falls on the ice were never discouraging, but always accompanied by smiles and a "let's do that again" attitude.
"We got Will in that program as quickly as we could, and from Day One he just fell in love with it. The skating part, the other friends in the class, the activities they do, Coach Cody. It was like he was just meant to be there," Fowler said. "He would wake up every day and say 'Is today the day we get to go skate? How many more days until I get to go skate?'"
At one All-Stars session, Howard introduced basic hockey skills to the group. For Will, the combination of skating and stickhandling proved difficult. However, Howard saw that Will had a passion for the sport.
"You could see the fire in his eyes," Howard said. "You could see how badly he wanted to score a goal or how badly he wanted to get to the puck and beat the other kids to it or beat me and make me look bad. He didn't care about anything else."
Instead, Howard looked into getting Will involved with the Nashville Sled Preds sled hockey team, finding temporary equipment and talking with coaches about letting Will try it out.
Then Howard pitched the idea to Ashley Fowler.
"I had never even heard of sled hockey before Cody told me about it that morning. We had to go home and Google it," Fowler said. "But we went to Centennial I think the very next day."
At Centennial Sportsplex, players and coaches from the adult sled hockey team helped fit Will with his new equipment.
Like ice skating, Will quickly took to sled hockey - his stamina and speed stunning many of the adult players and coaches.
"They just couldn't believe how much he was able to propel himself and how hard he was able to push himself," Howard said. "And he was skating. He was skating better than than kids who had been in the sled for months. I would say now he's easily one of the fastest kids on his sled team."
With his speed, Will also brought a fearlessness and determination with him onto the ice.
"For some of the drills, the adult and the junior team are together and then they split apart and the kids and the grownups do their own separate thing. But Will has no concept that he's not a 6-foot-2, burly guy out there," Fowler said. "He thinks he's one of the adults."
At one practice in particular, Will even joined the adults as the only junior player, not letting the age difference intimidate him in the slightest.
"One of the guys came off the ice after and said we've nicknamed your son T-Bone, because that's all he wants to do, is check people," Fowler said.
In January, Will joined the Junior Sled Preds team at the SPIDA Invitational Sled Hockey Tournament in Columbus, Ohio. For Ashley Fowler and her family, being around families and players of similar backgrounds was an overwhelming experience.
Will even scored his first goal, and won the championship game with his team.
"Tuesday morning after we got back all he could say was 'Mommy, can I take my puck to school?'" Fowler said. "He was so excited to take the game puck to school and to show all his friends. He was just over the moon."
Will also told his mom that it felt good not to be last.
"I asked him what he meant by that and he said 'I'm always last. I'm always picked last for the team, when we have to run around the track at school and recess I'm the last one,'" Fowler said. "He likes just being in the middle of all the friends and not being the one that's different. So I think that gives him a group to belong to."
Joining All-Stars and the Sled Preds has given the whole Fowler family a group to belong to as well.
"We were saying it doesn't seem possible that seven months ago we didn't know any of these people. We didn't know any of this stuff, I didn't know any of this terminology and we had Saturdays to ourselves," Fowler said. "Now I feel like we have this whole new family.
"And it's not just Will, it's having been surrounded by amazing people who know far more than I do about kids and about kids with special needs and skating and hockey. All I can do is just be overwhelmed and humbled and grateful that we're in the position we're in."
And those around Will feel just as grateful for him being part of the Ford Ice Center community.
"Will has become my hero. When you meet Will, you immediately know he's special and you immediately know that he can accomplish everything he wants to," Howard said. "I like to envision a future where I know him as he grows up, he becomes a peer, mentor or coach for All-Stars, moves away for college, does amazing things, and I get to see it happen."
Looking back to seven months ago, Ashley Fowler and her family still can't believe the difference the All Stars program and Sled Preds have made in their lives.
"The truth is they told us Will might not ever even walk," Fowler said. "And now I look at him faster than I am and say, 'I wonder what else he's going to be able to do that they told us he wouldn't.'"