That’s The Spirit!
● By Aimee Cormier
By Anne B. Minvielle | Submitted Photos
It is that time again, a time when one searches for the true spirit of Christmas. Malls are crowded, boutiques are thriving, shoppers are weary, and everyone is wondering, “Why?” Perhaps now is the perfect time to look for a story that can teach us about a message of joy and love, a message of respect for every person born in the image of the Christ Child, even if it might have been in the humblest of surroundings and perhaps be the least of our sisters and brothers. We need not look far. In New Iberia, there is a group whose achievements rated it an appearance on a national news show and guest spots at a national football league game. And their story is special.
The group, a flag football team based in New Iberia known as Team Louisiana, won gold medals at the Special Olympics’ first unified flag football championship. The team is made up of athletes with and without developmental disabilities. This partnership of team members is new, contrary to teams that have long participated in Special Olympics.
Eunice Kennedy Shriver had a sister, Rosemary, who had an intellectual disability, and Shriver realized that she and others like her were often neglected despite the gifts they had to offer. Shriver, who was quite an athlete, saw that sports could unite all people. In 1962, she began Camp Shriver for young people with intellectual disabilities. In July 1968 the first International Special Olympics Games were held in Chicago. Today Special Olympics International serves over 4 million people in over 170 countries.
A New Focus On Unified Sports
In recent years, much attention has been focused on Special Olympics Unified Sports to bring together athletes with and without intellectual disabilities to train and compete on the same team. According to the organization’s handbook, “Throughout the year, in a variety of sports ranging from basketball to golf to figure skating, Unified Sports athletes improve their physical fitness, sharpen their skills, challenge the competition and have fun, too.”
Among locals who are active in the Unified Sports movement are Brodie and Rebekah Russo. Rebekah has been interested in Special Olympics for some time since she is an interpreter for the hearing impaired, employed by the Iberia Parish School Board. With a true spirit of generosity, she has often volunteered her time to accompany and coach Special Olympic athletes as they participate in track and field events.
Rebekah explained that before she and her husband became involved in Unified Sports, when the call went out for volunteers to work with Special Olympics, she answered simply because she enjoyed being with the kids involved. Even when it meant traveling with a team to Hammond, the locale for area contests, she saw the opportunity as one of benefit to herself as well as the teams. Rebekah’s husband Brodie joined her in coaching track and field events for Special Olympics. She soon found that another interpreter for the hearing impaired, Katie Botts, was also interested in coaching, and the two began a long-term partnership. Another local, Ted Sandoz, who has a son who has been a participant in Special Olympics, was ready when a new challenge was issued.
According to Rebekah, “In 2011, the people from the state office notified us that they wanted to form a state football tournament. It was to be a unified, flag football team, so we needed an equal number of special athletes and partners who were not disabled. We asked around and my husband volunteered to be a partner instead of a coach, and others we knew did as well, so we formed a team. The team is made up of 10 players, 5 partners and 5 special athletes, with 3 special athletes playing at one time.” Unified flag football has its own set of rules, and the coaches had to study and learn the rules before teaching the team.
Finding partners to work with the special athletes to establish a unified team has never been a problem according to Brodie Russo. “We never have to ask or to advertise for help. By word of mouth, people hear about what we are doing and want to be a part of it. There really is something special about this and it isn’t that these people are handicapped,” he said.
Rebekah Brodie added, “These people bring a light that we can’t understand. If you’re with them for 5 minutes and you’re not smiling, something’s wrong. Our lives are consumed with Special Olympics and we’re okay with that.”
Forming The Team
The team of athletes and partners was formed quickly and only practiced for a few weeks. Although they may have lacked the finesse that comes from much practice, the team had the spirit that comes from passionate coaches, and they won first place in the state tournament. Rebekah said, “We were then told that in 2014, for the first time there would be a USA Special Olympics Unified Flag Football Tournament and that Louisiana had put in a bid to have a team. Since we had won at state, we were to be that team at a national level.” Thus Team Louisiana, a New Iberia based team was Newark, New Jersey, bound in June of 2014.
The team began some serious practices and games. In November of 2013, the entire group went to training camp at Camp Beauregard in Pineville for 5 days. Rebekah said that this was an opportunity to see if the special athletes could function on their own and could take on the job of representing the state at the national level. Of course there were many practices. They also went to Shreveport to play the Arkansas unified team and to Alabama to play its unified team. The traveling as well as the playing proved to be valuable experiences for the athletes, some of whom had never been away from home. The coaches were challenged as well, as they studied and wrote up plays. “It’s for real,” laughed Rebekah.
When Team Louisiana traveled to play for the national championship, athletes, partners and coaches knew that the challenge of winning was for real. They had to play 7 games over a 4 day period. The team won 5 games, losing 2 games in the preliminary round, to place first. Rebekah said, “There was overwhelming joy, and yet those athletes were humbled. They chose to wear the gold side of their reversible jerseys and said they wanted to wear gold on gold for the gold. And they did it.”
National Champs In The Spotlight
The team was in for more than gold when they returned to Louisiana. “Together We Make Football” consists of segments which tell the stories of how football has had on effect across the country. The series is presented by NBC Sports and can be seen on the TODAY show each Friday during the NFL season. The segments are narrated by Josh Elliott of the NBC Sports Group.
Because of Team Louisiana’s accomplishment in winning the gold at the first Unified Flag Football Special Olympics Tournament, its story was chosen to be featured on the TODAY show in October. The team was given a little lagniappe to celebrate their victory. They were invited to visit the New Orleans Saints practice facility where they were welcomed by Sean Payton and the Saints.
The team was also invited to the Mercedes-Benz Superdome where they watched a video message from Sean Payton as they met with Rita Benson LeBlanc, Owner/Vice Chairman of the Board of the Saints. Team Louisiana was told that they would receive tickets and pregame passes to the Saints-Green Bay Backers game and then LeBlanc made the presentation, which appeared as part of the TODAY segment. Anyone lucky enough to see it witnessed pure joy, a spirit of giving and a spirit of Christmas. The coaches and partners who had volunteered their spirits for many months were as thrilled as the athletes.
The partners who made up the team included Brodie Russo, Caleb Russo, Tyler Reaux, Cornelius Bush, and Teandre Williams. The special athletes included Camrin Sandoz, Roy Menard, Albert Friou, Scott Smith, and Victor Madden.
Unified Special Olympics embodies the spirit of inclusion and of acceptance of a Child born in a humble manger who came to be adored.