Thursday, June 19, 2014

Flag Day At Special Olympics USA 2014

TigerBlog used to cover Lawrenceville Prep football when he was in the newspaper business. It was one of his favorite teams to cover.

The coach back then was a man named Vit Piscuskas. TigerBlog remembers him as being a pretty funny man who was a good coach and who appreciated the coverage. TB also remembers reading about Piscuskas when he passed away and being saddened by the news.

Lawrenceville didn't play any local teams. Its entire schedule was made up of similar prep schools spread throughout the Northeast, and TB remembers driving to see a big game between the Big Red and Choate one year.

He also remembers the year Lawrenceville went co-ed, back in 1987, when TB covered Lawrenceville against its biggest rival, Hill. One of the Lawrenceville fans held up a sign that said "Women at Lawrenceville? What's next? Men at Hill?" Now that was funny. And the kind of sophisticated humor that you'd expect from Lawrenceville.

The football field at Lawrenceville was a great place to see a game, set back near a stream on a campus that screams "Ivy League" way more than it does "high school."

TigerBlog hadn't been on that field in 25 years or so - until yesterday, that is, when his week with Special Olympics took him back to Lawrenceville, this time for flag football.

There were four fields set up for the sport, which made its debut at the USA Games four years ago in Nebraska as a demonstration sport. This time, it was a full-fledged sport and a highly competitive one at that, with teams from all over the country.

TigerBlog was stationed on Field 1, which was the main football field at Lawrenceville, now named Keuffel Field, after Ken Keuffel, who coached single-wing football at the prep school decades after learning it from Dick Colman at Princeton.

The flag football games were played on a field 40 yards long and 25 yards wide. Teams had four downs to get to midfield and then four more to get into the end zone. The quarterback couldn't run, and no running plays were permitted within five yards of midfield or the goal line. There were no kickoffs, punts, field goals or extra points. After a touchdown, teams could go for one by putting the ball on the five-yard line or two by putting it on the 10.

The first game of the day matched Texas and Massachusetts. Football, as you might have heard, is big in Texas, even on the Special Olympics level. Oh, and Texas was the only team with its own cheerleaders. And the coaches, some of the fans and some of the cheerleaders wore Cowboy hats.

Not surprisingly, Texas beat Massachusetts 27-6

Rhode Island then knocked off Indiana 42-26 after basically scoring on every possession. The final touchdown came on a pass to the center (all players are eligible receivers), a woman named Audra Leroux. TB asked her if it was her first touchdown, and she replied it was her fifth in two days.

A little later on, it was Louisiana 20, South Carolina 6, in a game that was witnessed by a fairly nice sized crowd that included Cleveland Browns all-pro cornerback Joe Haden and the Giants very likeable punter Steve Weatherford. Louisiana led 18-0 at the half when a young man named Camrin Sandoz came in to play quarterback.

To TigerBlog, Special Olympics is all about people like Camrin Sandoz.

The flag football games that TB saw were all unified games, meaning that they paired Special Olympic athletes and partners who are there to facilitate play. Camrin was one of the Special Olympic athletes on the Louisiana team.

Camrin stood in the pocket looking to throw on his first attempt, even as the rush came straight at him. Eventually he threw a short pass that was intercepted.

The same thing happened on his second attempt.

A little later, Camrin took a pair of handoffs and gained a few yards. Then, in the game's final minute, he threw his third pass, a completion for a short gain.

This is what's it's about. The teams want to win, and that's a huge part of it. But it's not the whole part. No, not even close.

It's also about making sure that the Special Olympic athletes are given every chance to be successful. It's not handed to them, but they are put in position to be successful. Think Camrin was fired up? He threw a completion, ran the ball twice - and his team won.

Oh, and these games are also about fun. Lots of fun.

Like the Texas team, who danced when the game ended. Or the Louisiana and South Carolina teams, who took it to a whole different level.

First they danced together at the half, spontaneously, after a few South Carolina players went out dance to the halftime music that was playing over the PA system. Then the rest of the South Carolina players went out. Then a few of the Louisiana players. Then the rest of them. Eventually they were in  a line, all of them, dancing, falling down, laughing, high-fiving each other, regardless of which team they were on.

The flag football competition concludes today with the final games, including the gold medal game. The desire to win is serious.

That's not all that's going on here.

TigerBlog sees some of the Special Olympics athletes and thinks about how easy it would be for them to be forgotten by society, even by their families possibly. While the rest of society goes about its business, not really considering the great good fortune of not having the mental and physical issues that these athletes do, the competitors that TB has seen all week at these Games are forced to deal every day with those issues.

And you know who gets a lot of the credit for what TB has seen? It's the coaches who teach them and work with them. They were on the sidelines, with the same kind of laminated play sheets that you see in college and NFL football. Only the Xs and Os on these pages take a little longer to figure these plays out, and it takes a special person with special patience to be able to handle it.

And it's about the family members who are there, cheering all the way, like the parents that TB sees at his kids' games.

Mostly, it's about the athletes. The ones with a great spirit and love for the games they're playing.

For them, the opportunity to compete is priceless. It's about playing a sport, trying to excel, trying to improve, trying to win.

It's also about self-worth and purpose and taking a dignified place in society.

It's beautiful to see up close.

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