Flag football proves a natural fit for Special Olympians
Flag football is a recent arrival on the scene for Special Olympics Illinois, but it has already zoomed near the top in popularity.
"Numbers-wise, it's our second most popular team sport that Special Olympics offers," said Paul Melzer, who helped bring flag football to Special Olympics three years ago when he was a regional director downstate. "We'll have about 65 teams compete when it's all said and done."
The enthusiasm for the sport was evident during a tournament held Sunday at Stevenson High School in Lincolnshire.
Approximately 150 athletes and coaches took part in the first flag football competition held in northern Illinois through Special Olympics Illinois.
For the spectator, it was little different from a high school football game, minus the helmets and pads. There was the same jockeying from the bench, with coaches contesting referee's calls, players calling to each other on the field and parents cheering from the stands.
As for the players, although many of them have disabilities that render them unable to express themselves verbally, they proved their prowess when called upon to run, pass, catch and defend.
Coach Paul Pisani of DuPage Valley Special Athletes said despite their challenges, the athletes love sports.
"When you see a smile on their face after the game and they are jumping around high-fiving each other, that's when I know that we have done our job," said Pisani, whose son Lou, 19, a recent graduate from Naperville North High School, plays on the flag football team.
Player Tom Hamill, 18, a Naperville Central High School graduate, said he's wanted to play competitive football for a long time.
"I played on a league before I started here, but those were kind of exhibitions. I wanted to take it to a level where I could do competition," he said. "I think (Special Olympics) gives a variety of opportunities for kids with disabilities. No matter how delayed they are, they give them a chance."
The teams are coed and even intergenerational.
Melanie Mayer, 18, of Naperville, scored a touchdown for the DuPage Valley Special Athletes in a game against the Fox Valley Special Recreation Association. She said being the only girl on the team motivates her, especially when others tell her the game is too tough for her.
"I proved them wrong, that girls are tough, too," she said.
Steven Mastel, 26, of Sugar Grove, a quarterback for the Fox Valley Special Recreation Association, said he is determined to play as long as he can, regardless of age.
"Even if I am an old man with a broken leg, I'll still play," he said.