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Unified by a Common Goal

Special Olympics Project UNIFY's picture

By Soeren Palumbo, Co-Founder, SO College and the Spread the Word to End the Word Campaign

Special Olympics Project UNIFY has a transition program called SO College, which aims to bring together college students and individuals with intellectual disabilities to create a campus and community of inclusion and acceptance.

Outlined against a blue-gray November sky in the beating heart of the Southeastern Conference, two teams took to a Tuscaloosa field Saturday. The brass echoes of Yea Alabama faded with the cheers of the crowd, fans and band drawing breath in anticipation.  Before them, crimson red met royal purple in athletic tableau. 

Here, college football is a civic – if not always civil – religion.  “Roll Tide” and “Geaux Tigers” are more than team cheers; they are salutations, exclamations, sometimes even punctuations.  There are no moral victories here.  Athletic competition of young men and women, joined by the collective will of aptly-termed “fan nations,” determine the bragging rights of the coming winter, spring, and summer.

Here, in this locale of singular love and respect for sport, Alabama and LSU brought their 118-year-old rivalry to a new field: Special Olympics Unified Sports.  The Crimson Tide, represented by a team composed of Tuscaloosa Special Olympics athletes and University of Alabama students met the Bayou Bengals for the SEC’s first inter-collegiate Unified Flag Football game.

The heights of Bryant-Denny Stadium in the distance, each first down by the home team elicited a “Roll Tide.”  Each defensive stop by the Fighting Tigers prompted a roar from the smaller – but no less impassioned – visitors’ section.  And for 40 minutes of genuine athletic competition, there were no divisions between disability and ability.  There was no pity.  There were no more or less “fortunate.”  There were some 30 football players more concerned with the display of the north endzone scoreboard than their role in a human interest story.  There were two football teams dignifying the other not by holding back against them but rather – to borrow the Bama parlance – by trying to give ‘em Hell.   

There are some who rob Special Olympics of its impact with sentiments like “the score doesn’t matter” or “competition isn’t important.”  The transformative power of sport is fueled by adversity, nourished by the challenge of running 50 more meters, swimming 5/10 of a second faster, scoring one more point than the opponent.  When two groups of young adults with and without intellectual disabilities try to “give each other Hell” on the football field, they transform into two teams each unified by a common goal.  Labels of “abled” and “disabled” give way to those of “quarterback” and “wide receiver”; comparative scores recorded by IQ tests are trumped by comparative scores recorded by the north endzone scoreboard.  With a defensive lineman bearing down, a quarterback has neither time nor need to divide her team – or her opponents’ – into “abled” and “disabled”; she needs to avoid the tackle, find the check-down receiver, and call the next play. 

In these competitive fires – stoked by historic rivalry and fan fervor – was forged fraternal steel on Saturday.  Friendships founded on the practice field were pascalized by the pressures of shared struggle.  And after 40 minutes of sport, handshakes and hugs spoke a respect for the opponent, co-travelers through the crucible of competition.  A 19-7 score held high the heads of the Fighting Tigers as the Alabama team vowed a different outcome in their 2014 meeting.

Through the echo of the final whistle, another victory became clear, if unspoken: it had worked.  The idea of two then-college students of their peers assembling Unified Sports teams across campuses and competing in intercollegiate Special Olympics competition had worked.  The concept had been proven and the vision of SO College borne out in hard-hitting, SEC fashion: college students can be a force for innovation, volunteerism, advocacy, and – ultimately – unity within the Special Olympics movement.  

The growth of SO College from 5 campuses in 2009 to over 70 today demonstrates the potential and power of college students in the Special Olympics movement.  The impact of advocacy initiative Spread the Word to End the Word and now that of its athletic analog SO College Intercollegiate Unified Sports makes clear the leadership role of college students as we strive to speak, play, and live Unified.

The passion for sport shared by Special Olympics and college campuses will continue to push SO College to grow horizontally and vertically – to reach more campuses and to develop deeper and better programming on each of its participating campuses.  The catalysts of major intercollegiate rivalries and future partnerships with ESPN’s college sports programming and student recreation departments will help bring an even better experience to even more SO College participants.

Over the past few years, college students have defied expectations and demonstrated that they could not only coordinate local Special Olympics programming on their campuses but lead a Special Olympics College movement around the world.  And as obstacles arise in our shared journey, we promise to live the example set Saturday on a Tuscaloosa flag football field: we’ll give ‘em Hell. 

We hope that you’ll join us.  If you are interested in brining SO College to your campus, please email us at SOCollege@specialolympics.org.

Pictured provided by Special Olympics


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