ZEELAND, Mich. (WOOD) — On Mondays at Zeeland East High School, there’s not a more joyful classroom than the one where zLINKS meets. It’s a room filled with positivity, smiles and endless laughs. They share their good news; going over the fun they had over the weekend.

The class is a mix of students that matches those with disabilities to their able-bodied peers.

Ryan Stockdale sat at a corner table last Monday. He talked about going to the beach with friends and watching “Sunday Night Football” on NBC. With almost every word, the class erupted. It was not hard to notice they idolized him, hanging on his every word. He was the center of the team.

Stockdale knows that feeling. He knows that behind strong teams are the hearts of the leaders that pump them: a beating pulse of passion, friendship, and purpose. Dedication he learned from being a three-sport athlete connects straight to the classroom.

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Ryan Stockdale celebrates at touchdown for Zeeland East. (File)

“I love being on the team and being a part of a team,” the Zeeland East senior said. “Just the relationships that I grow with all my teammates, that goes farther than the wins and losses.”

Stockdale juggles being a wide receiver on the Chix football team, running on the track team and has played lacrosse for the last three years.

But he likes to concentrate on zLINKS.

“It’s a 24/7 thing. It’s not just when I’m in my one hour with them,” Stockdale said. “They go through the same high school struggles that we do. They have six hours of classes. They go to lunch. They still have to make friends and stuff like that.”

“Friend” is the keyword there. Stockdale is best friends with his zLINKS peer Jay.

“He’s the funniest guy ever and he’s just so creative,” Stockdale said of Jay. “He has so many talents that a lot of people don’t see but are really cool to see.”

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Ryan Stockdale in the zLINKS program at Zeeland East High School. (October 2019)

The two eat lunch together, hug in the halls and hang out outside of school. They play together on a unified basketball team in the winter. That’s where Stockdale can connect the lessons he’s learned to the peers who admire him.

“If we lose a basketball game, you’ve got to tell them it’s OK and the moral is, we’ve got to be a team,” Stockdale stresses.

As much as he has been able to help teach his zLINKS peers, they equally taught him a great perspective on life.

“You can really tell who they are,” Stockdale said. “They are openly expressing themselves and don’t care what other people think at all.”

That’s how Stockdale tries to model his life beyond the sports and extracurricular activities.

“I think there’s more to me than that,” Stockdale said. “If all I’m doing is playing football in high school, that’s not a whole lot. So, I just try to be bigger than that.”

Stockdale wants to become a school therapist and work specifically with children who have special needs.