MIDDLETOWN – There was no stopping Alexis Hubbard.
Her Concord No. 1 jersey turned into a blur after she caught a short pass from teammate Avery Roberts. A quick spin move left a Caesar Rodney defender grasping air, and Hubbard streaked down the left sideline for the Raiders’ first touchdown.
She scored again minutes later, and even though Concord lost 18-12, after the game Hubbard said, “I want to do it again.”
She will have that chance, as the opening games of high school Unified flag football were just the start. The pilot program, formed by the Delaware Interscholastic Athletic Association and Special Olympics Delaware, featured two games under the bright lights of Cavaliers Stadium on Oct. 24.
The program brings students with intellectual disabilities and varsity football players together to play as a team. Caesar Rodney took on Concord, followed by William Penn against Middletown. The players sported the same jerseys as their varsity peers, and the games had all of the trappings of varsity football – cheerleaders, a boisterous crowd and a play-by-play announcer.
“This was a true football atmosphere,” DIAA executive director Kevin Charles said. “We had a great crowd, very enthusiastic. … For these kids to have the full game experience, it’s truly special. That’s what this is really about.”
All four teams ran through a fog-shrouded, inflatable Middletown football helmet and broke through banners designed by each school’s cheerleaders to take the field. And those weren’t the only barriers that fell.
“The idea is inclusion,” Charles said. “The goal is to take kids out of those classrooms where it’s just them, and they don’t get to interact with the students without disabilities. It’s trying to bring them into the mainstream wherever possible so they can have the total school experience.”
The participating schools made sure the Unified athletes didn’t miss a thing. At Middletown, the Unified team was invited to join the varsity team at their weekly pregame dinner on Thursday night. And on Friday, the Unified players wore their jerseys to school over a dress shirt and tie – just like the varsity.
“It just gives these kids an incredible sense of purpose,” said Michael Roberts, father of Middletown Unified player Alex Roberts. “Just to see the excitement in their eyes, it’s incredible.
“The greatest thing for the special athletes is the peer partners and their involvement. It’s just making these kids feel like they’re a part of something big. And it really is big.”
William Penn took the pregame buildup to another level. The Colonials’ Unified athletes received their jerseys in front of the entire student body, at the homecoming pep rally two weeks before their first game.
“That was the best moment for me,” William Penn athletic director Sebrina Perialas said. “You saw what it meant to our kids, to embrace something different.”
The pep rally was a big moment for Sam Hensley, who went on to score six touchdowns in the Colonials’ 40-33 Unified win over Middletown.
“My heart was beating, because all of the crowd was there,” he said.
A full day
The Colonials’ Unified team received the full game day experience, too. It arrived at school at 9:30 a.m. Saturday, enjoyed a pregame breakfast with the varsity team, then participated in the coin toss. The players sat with the band and learned a few dances during the varsity team’s 49-22 victory over Concord, then enjoyed postgame pizza and cupcakes.
Then it was time to board the bus to Middletown for the Unified game.
“They sang for a little while, and then I think they got sleepy,” Perialas said with a laugh. “The bus got quiet for a little while.”
But they had plenty of energy when the game started, and their school pride was on full display. When the Colonials’ Nick Kane pulled the flag of a Middletown opponent for the game’s first tackle, he unleashed a leap and a 1,000-watt smile. When Hensley hauled in a long touchdown pass for his team’s first score, teammate Jaden Dean turned to the crowd, pounded his chest twice and pointed to the “WM. PENN” on his jersey.
And Perialas has noticed how the program has brought some of the athletes with disabilities out of their shells at school.
“Now they’ll come by and say, ‘Hey coach, how are you?’ ” the athletic director said.
Varsity athletes gain
Some of the state’s best varsity football players are participating. All-State linebacker Avery Roberts plays for the Concord team, and said he has made new friends and gained some people skills.
“They’ve been so supportive. It’s brought tears to their eyes, and it’s really wonderful,” Rich DiCristofaro, coach of the Concord team, said of the varsity players. “It’s a great experience for those guys.”
Frank Burton Jr. – last season’s Delaware Lineman of the Year – and his younger brother, Zach, are part of William Penn’s Unified team. The Colonials had 10 practices before their first game, with the Unified players improving by leaps and bounds.
“We started building chemistry, working the plays,” Frank Burton said. “You saw it with the motion and the trick plays and everything. In about our sixth practice, we really started getting better with the plays.”
William Penn even has a student as a head coach. Dominique Spencer is 1-0 in her career after the win over Middletown, but she gained much more than a victory.
“I’ve learned a lot from them,” Spencer said. “People have said, ‘Oh, you’re going to teach them so much.’ In reality, they teach you so much. You just see that they never give up. Whether they’re tired or they want water or they lost their shoe, it doesn’t matter. They always keep running.
“They will stay out of breath just to get that pass. Or if they miss it, they always want to go out for another. It’s just that constant you can do it, positive, let’s keep going, don’t give up attitude.”
The DIAA has sanctioned Unified competition in track and field for the last three years, with the number of teams and participants at its annual state outdoor meet growing each year.
“What is so rewarding is to watch the students without disabilities interact with their peers, and see how much those students are getting out of the experience,” Charles said. “It is a win, win, win situation. All of the kids benefit from it.”
Kylie Frazer, director of youth and school initiatives for Special Olympics Delaware, hopes to see Unified flag football become sanctioned as an official DIAA sport. She said both organizations are working toward having every high school in the state start a team in the next five years.
“It goes beyond the playing field,” Frazer said. “It really is to create more respect and acceptance and inclusive opportunities within the schools for students that typically would not be in a varsity sports program.”
Charles said DIAA would like to offer a Unified sport during each school season – fall, winter and spring. The next step is bringing Unified football to the big stage, as the four teams are scheduled to meet again Dec. 5 at Delaware Stadium as part of the DIAA’s Division I and Division II state championship football games.
“This exceeded all of my expectations,” Charles said.
Contact Brad Myers at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow on Twitter: @BradMyersTNJ