On Dec. 7, the Franklin (Texas) High football team was preparing for a state semifinal game against Edna with a customary send-off pep rally at the school.

The Lions are the biggest show in the town of 1,614 about 65 miles southeast of Waco. The 3A powerhouse entered the season two-time defending state champion and was working on making it back for a fourth straight year. But before the band fired up the fight song, there was an important first order of business: a surprise for a local celebrity.

The football team’s leadership group called Nash Pils, a 17-year-old junior with Down syndrome, to the gym floor. A naturally gifted photographer, Nash has become the documentarian of a small town’s sports programs, and in turn, the football team has become his champion.

Students chanted, “Nash! Nash! Nash!” as Nash waved his arms to encourage them to get louder. Then the football players, holding a sign that said “Thank you, Nash! Our MVP,” presented him with a gift-wrapped box.

Nash opened his gift and found a $2,000 camera lens that would allow him to grow as a photographer. The community came together to crowdfund the new gear — reaching the goal in about 12 hours — just in time for the road trip.

“We decided to show everyone in public at the pep rally, because we wanted people to see how easy it is to be a good friend to anyone,” said Jayden Jackson, Franklin’s star running back. “I hope everyone took something from it. I know he’s enjoying that lens. He’s everywhere with it.”

The fabled Friday Night Lights of Texas encompass entire communities, and in this one, Nash plays his own important role, one that showcases the unique way he sees the world and the moments he is able to capture. Here’s what that journey looks like through Nash’s eyes.

Building brotherhood

When the Lions take the field, Nash is usually right there waiting for them, dating back to Franklin’s 2021 state championship season when his brother, Jensen, was a senior tight end and defensive back.

The players have become a collection of his brothers, too, giving Nash’s parents peace of mind as he tried to navigate high school after Jensen left for college.

“Jensen would see [Snapchat] snaps from people teasing him in the lunchroom, and would say, ‘Don’t do that,'” said Nash’s mom, Honny. “But even when he graduated, the football boys put a stop to it.”

Players would message Honny on social media and let her know when there had been an issue and that they had handled it.

“Some of the kids I knew, and some of them I didn’t,” she said. “But we always had little feelers.”

And when one of the state’s best players comes to your defense, it gets noticed.

“I used to hear people bully Nash, and sometimes I’d see him cry,” Jackson said. “I didn’t like that. I tried to step up and be a good friend because I don’t like bullying.”

Serious business

Nash took a shine to photography early, grabbing his parents’ camera and taking photos as a toddler, which Honny said raised some eyebrows among other parents.

“When he was a little baby, I remember them going, ‘Oh dear, no, give that camera to your parents, you’re gonna break that,'” she said. “And we were like, ‘No he’s not. That’s his job.'”

Nash started taking his job seriously when he tagged along to family sporting events, including his brother’s youth football games. Nash’s father, Doug, said he would often see Nash playing with the camera and wonder what he was up to.

“There was a selfie he took when Jensen was playing flag football. I turned around and looked at him laying in the grass with the light in his face,” Doug said. “When I went back to go edit the photos that he had taken, there was just that one picture, the grass is perfectly lit, with his hair in his face and grass in front. I was just like, ‘OK, yeah, Nash knows what he’s doing.'”

An eye toward joy

Nash’s photographic eye developed naturally, said Hannah White, one of Nash’s mentors. For instance, Nash was 10 years old when — while at the soccer fields for one of sister Ayla’s games on a foggy Saturday morning — he fixated on a spider web stretched across a gate with droplets of dew on it. When Ayla came and peeked through the hole in the web, Nash snapped her photo.

It became his first award-winning photo, when it won a summer youth photography contest held by the College Station library in 2017. It was all Nash’s idea, without any guidance.

“He knows what he wants to capture, and he’s not going to let anyone else dictate it to him,” White said. “He is able to capture people’s happiness, laughter and just true human emotion.”

Nash’s eye also earned him a lifelong pal in Tom Fox, a Dallas Morning News photographer and Pils family friend who sold them one of his old cameras to help Nash get more serious. Tom was part of a team that won a Pulitzer Prize in 2006 for coverage of Hurricane Katrina and was a Pulitzer finalist in 2020 for his photos of a courthouse shooter in Dallas. Not a bad resource to have. He offers Nash tips on camera settings and how to hold the camera at chest level instead of looking through the viewfinder on occasion. (“Nash thought that was coooooool,” Honny said.)

“The communication skills aren’t there,” Honny said of Nash. “He says hi and hello and thank you, but that’s pretty much about it. You’re not gonna get a whole conversation from him. … But Tom’s name is easy to say. He says, ‘Tom! Tom!’ Whenever he and Tom are next to each other, Tom grabs that camera and starts pointing out weird stuff. And Nash hangs on every word.

Ability to showcase

Nash shoots all sports year-round, but football has the most downtime during a game. And according to his pro mentors, this is where he excels.

“He’s fearless,” Fox said. “I mean, he goes right after it and he does these candids as well as photos of his friends and the players on the teams. I just love how real and natural his photos are.”

During a timeout in a win over Woodville in Franklin in 2022, Nash took a photo of linebacker Brayden Youree grabbing a drink, with dramatic lighting. It would go on to win Best of Show in the photo contest at the 2023 Robertson County Fair in Hearne, Texas.

“I tell people this all the time. He is the best at capturing what the environment is of sporting events, but especially for football,” White said.

With White’s encouragement and a community of support, the Pils family realized Nash had found his calling. “For the first time, it wasn’t the disability,” Honny said. “It was the ability.”

The character behind the camera

When he’s not capturing prize-winning photos on the field, Nash often turns his camera around on his classmates in the stands, like this one from the 52-14 semifinal win.

At Franklin’s state championship game in December, the die-hards up front at AT&T Stadium in Arlington would cheer whenever Nash would walk by, and he would stop, wave his hands to get them to show some excitement, then start snapping away.

“It’s really hard for someone to photograph their peers, especially someone in high school,” Fox said. “But he doesn’t have that fear or that anxiety. I think that builds his confidence, that somebody else trusted his ability to take their picture.”

It’s a far cry from several years ago, when Honny asked Nash what he wanted for Christmas.

“A friend,” he told her, delivering a gut punch to a parent.

He felt lonely in special education classes. “Nash knows he’s different,” she said. “Nash knows he has Down syndrome.”

But, she said, she thinks the camera has changed how Nash is seen.

“The photography helped him socially,” she said. “You can hide behind that camera and be awkward or be different, but that makes you more socially acceptable in some people’s eyes like, ‘Oh, he can do that.’ He’s a funky dude, and he’s gonna make you smile.”

And he’s not afraid to play to the crowd if that’s what it takes.

“He will do just about anything that he can to have a good time,” White said. “During halftime or during timeouts, they’ll play music, and you’ll just catch Nash dancing. He knows the power that he has. And he’s not shy to use that.”

More than football

White gets emotional talking about Nash, with whom she has bonded while photographing Franklin events. She marvels at his ability to spotlight the culture that surrounds sports while also photographing the game.

“His work just captures the definition of joy,” she said. “He’s able to capture moments for what they are. They’re not staged. Photos from his eye are something that I would never be able to capture, just because he is who he is. His pictures are able to show the good sides or the good parts of human beings to their core.”

And the subjects have grown to appreciate having such an attentive photographer.

“Nash takes pictures of the band, the twirlers, the kids in the stands. He’s always focused on that,” Doug said of photos like this one Nash took of sophomore cheerleader Haidyn Fannin, daughter of Franklin coach Mark Fannin. “They share his photos; they become their profile pics, or they just share them in their [Instagram] stories. That happens a lot. That’s cool that they see his work is worthy of being their profile picture.”

Doug runs Facebook and Instagram accounts devoted to Nash’s photography, and he jokes that he’s going to add “Nash’s social media director” to his LinkedIn profile. But he sees firsthand that Nash is no longer lacking for friends.

“His first non-sports thing was that he got asked to come shoot the eighth-grade graduation party this past year by one of the parents,” Doug said. “That was his sister’s class.”

He said students send Instagram messages to Nash’s account asking him to come shoot events, like when an eighth-grade football player messaged, “Hey, Nash, can you come out and shoot our big game against Lorena this week? It’s a big showdown game and we want to make sure we have some of your photos from the game.”

Honny said some kids have even asked to take him to the kind of parties that parents aren’t supposed to know about, promising they’ll look after him. She’s moved by their consideration, but she’s not quite ready for that.

“Through this process of him being able to get out and be involved with the school and with the community, it’s allowed people to see who Nash is,” White said. “He is so much more than his Down syndrome.”

Professional praise

Fox, one of the best photojournalists in the country, said he once told Doug how lucky Nash is to have a modern camera with a motor drive, meaning you can snap several photos in rapid succession and hope one of them captures the moment.

But Fox was shocked to find out that Nash doesn’t do that. He takes single frames, such as when Jackson stretched the ball across the goal line on a 20-yard touchdown run against Edna, the first night Nash had his new lens.

“I look at some of the photos, and it’s a one-shot wonder kind of thing,” Fox said. “That’s one thing I was floored by. It’s incredible to me that he can just pull them out this way.”

Jackson, who was a junior this year, recently visited Texas and will be a highly recruited player after rushing for 4,655 yards and 65 touchdowns in the past two seasons. He said he sees Nash as one of the team’s stars, too.

“Everyone shows love to Nash,” Jackson said. “Whenever Nash is in our presence, we always give him high-fives and tell him how good of a photographer he is. We try to be positive and just throw good comments at him anytime we can because Nash, that’s a person to love. We know that he doesn’t have to travel to these games and take these photos for us, but he does.

The big stage

Nash is the son of journalists. Doug worked for 15 years at Hearst newspapers, notably for the San Antonio Express-News and Honny, now a nurse, was once a graphic artist at The Dallas Morning News. Jensen is a sophomore at North Texas, and Ayla, a freshman at Franklin High, is a cheerleader, plays basketball, runs cross country, and throws the discus and shot.

Doug said he always appreciated the impact of sports and learning to be part of a team. When they found out they were having another boy after Jensen was born, he and Honny dreamed of brothers who would grow up playing sports together.

“When Nash was born with Down syndrome, we knew that was not going to be the case,” Doug said. But years later, Nash is right in the mix.

“Being able to be on the field with Jensen when they won the [first] state championship was a really big deal,” Doug said. “Then last year, when they won it again with me being able to be on the field with Nash, with Nash being a part of it, was an equally big deal. Could I have imagined Nash being able to take part in a football game at AT&T Stadium? No. That’s an amazing part of this story for me.

Gearing up for more

White was a longtime photography hobbyist whose husband, Jacob, an assistant coach for the Lions, pushed her to pursue her passion, buying her a camera in 2019 and encouraging her to become a professional. That’s right around the same time she moved to Franklin, and eventually became fast friends with Nash. Both White and Nash’s parents think it probably had to do with the snacks she would buy Nash while they were working.

“We share a love of Dr Pepper and Sprite, pepperoni pizza, and sometimes Skittles or a pickle,” she said.

Doug said he and Nash were on the sideline for one of Jensen’s JV games and Nash and White struck up a friendship. Then Nash started to go sit by her during basketball games, where they’d shoot together from the court.

“That’s been going on ever since,” Doug said. “She just took a liking to him, and every time he learned something.”

White said she was immediately moved by Nash, a kindred spirit as someone who loved photography but needed encouragement.

“I think that’s kind of why I gravitated toward Nash, outside of him being a really bright and bubbly and fun individual,” she said. “I think he’s a lot like me in the sense where we have the belief in ourselves but sometimes we just need that extra push to put ourselves out there.”

She knew that for Nash to improve, he needed some new equipment. And as much as the football team appreciated him, she appreciated his impact on the team as well. So she wanted to show it by rallying his fans to buy him his new lens.

She posted on Facebook (without the knowledge of Nash or his parents) asking for contributions for a new lens for Nash’s camera that would allow him to grow even more. It took almost no time to reach the $2,200 goal.

“I was just so thrilled because he’s been wanting for so long to make his pictures better, and you just need a pro lens to make that happen, especially in those small-town settings where there’s not a lot of light,” Fox said. “You need that.”

White teared up talking about how Nash sprinted full-speed to meet the team at the presentation, and she said anytime she’s having a rough day, she watches it. She might have made it happen, but she said he has more than done the same for her.

“When I’m with him, I have such peace and such joy,” she said. “He’s such a gift to me. It fills me with so much joy for people to see who he is, to bring out the best in people.”

Access for change

Nash has become a fixture in Franklin with an all-access pass that would be the envy of any professional journalist.

Fannin, the head coach, has welcomed him into the program, which is how Nash ends up getting a photo of the coach giving a fiery speech after a playoff win.

Doug laughed, thinking about a story he was told during the season. Fannin was laying down the ground rules about how the locker room was all business and was closed to outsiders. No families, no brothers, no cousins.

“Literally the next words out of his mouth were, ‘Oh hey, Nash,'” Doug said. “He was walking around the locker room taking pregame pictures.”

But that’s the way things work in Franklin.

“The boys on our football team, they love him a whole lot. He really, truly is a part of the Franklin Lions football team, really any sports team,” White said. “It’s good to see a little bit of change coming from our Franklin community. They’re changing the tide, and it’s really kind of beautiful.”

More than photos

Nash is still, first and foremost, a Franklin student, classmate and fan. The Lions’ quest for a three-peat ended with a 14-7 loss to Malakoff in the state championship.

Jackson, his friend, was crushed. After the game, he fell to his knees, and stayed there for several minutes while White, holding her son, reached down to console him.

It was the only picture Nash took postgame. Instead, he held his camera while he walked around the field, hugging anyone who looked upset and patting others on the shoulder pads. Nobody said he was missing the moment or should be working.

One-shot Nash got the pic, then he hugged his friends.