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CHS junior cheerleader an inspiration to many people
Mariah Mercer enjoyed playing in the Ceres High Powder Puff Flag Football Game last month. - photo by Contributed to the Courier

Mariah Mercer celebrated her 16th birthday with family and friends at Torii's Japanese Steakhouse Monday evening in Modesto.

This past month, the Ceres High junior received an unexpected surprise during Homecoming week.

Mercer got to play in the Powder Puff Flag Football Game on Sept. 15 at Bulldog Stadium.

"At first, I was freaked out," said Mariah, who was born with spina bifida and has been confined to a wheelchair since the age of eight. "I didn't know what I was going to do. It was great being out there. I was doing what everybody else was doing. It was really fun."

Mariah joined the Powder Puff team knowing she wouldn't be allowed to play.

She attended all five, two-hour practices leading up to the game.

"All the frustration and boredom was worth it because I got to do it in the end," Mariah said. "I plan on doing the same thing next year."

Aiden Moore, Chris Lubinsky, Conner Johnson, Clay Elness and Jorge Valenzuela, Mariah's coaches and classmates, made the joint decision to put her in the game during the second half.

She played center. She snapped the ball to her team's quarterback.

"It felt like I was a part of the team," said Mariah, whose team scored three touchdowns when she was on the field. "That's what I enjoyed the most. It was really nice of them to do that. They put everything aside and thought about me."

"I never thought in my wildest dreams they would put her in the game," said Lisa Mendoza-Mercer, Mariah's mother. "They could have put her in just one time. They let her play a lot. I got my phone out and recorded her. Everybody was cheering. It was awesome. I started crying."

Mariah was born with spina bifida, a birth defect in which the backbone and spinal canal do not form normally.

She needed surgery to close the exposed opening.

Mariah had a total of eight operations from birth to sixth grade.

She walked with the aid of braces and crutches when she was younger.

Mariah doesn't let her physical limitations dictate her life.

"I have good support from my family," she said. "I'm really grateful for that. I get my positive energy from my mom."

Mariah had successful tryouts with Ceres High's varsity and junior-varsity cheer squads this school year and in 2014-15, respectively.

She failed to earn a spot on the JV team her freshman year.

"It was devastating," Mariah said. "I got over it. You always got to keep going if you don't make it. I put a lot of hard work in. It's great being a part of the team. The girls are really nice. We all get along."

"The doctors told me she wouldn't walk, would have delays in learning and wouldn't be higher than a C-average student," Lisa said. "It was all negative. I raised her to feel that she could do anything she put her mind to no matter what. I never discouraged her even if it was hard. We're really blessed to have the family we have. We're always there for her and are positive. Everybody supports her."

Mariah is anything but average.

"I'm blessed," Lisa said. "I wouldn't trade her for the healthiest child in the world. I wouldn't change anything about her. Her personality cracks me up. She's always been so positive. She's my hero. I'm amazed by her every day-the things she goes through and overcomes. She accepts how she was born. She's not going to let that stop her from what she wants to do. I'm so proud of her."