Monday, June 4, 2012

Program offers football, cheerleading for kids with Down syndrome

Stephen Nowak dreams big: He wants to be the quarterback of the Baltimore Ravens.
The 19-year-old from Churchton, who has Down syndrome, came pretty close to living his dream Saturday, playing football on the artificial turf of Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium.“This is as good as it gets,” said Stephen’s mom, Marla. “This is a lifetime memory.”
Stephen was among several dozen young people with Down syndrome who got a chance to play football and cheer on the sidelines through a two-day camp sponsored by the Global Down Syndrome Foundation. The event was a first for Annapolis.
On Friday, the players and cheerleaders learned fundamentals. Then, on Saturday, they got to participate in a game, complete with a professional announcer, scoreboard highlights and celebrity coaches.
Stephen, who wore a white No. 7 jersey for the Dragons, said his favorite part of the game was “getting the touchdown.”
His little sister Lila, 14, was the only girl on the football field, wearing 22 for the Dragons. She said the best part was running.
The Nowaks’ team, the Dragons, was coached by Mike Shanahan, coach of the Washington Redskins.
Across the field in blue were the Honey Badgers, coached by former Baltimore Ravens coach and current TV analyst Brian Billick.
In the end, the teams tied, 35-35.
Down syndrome is a genetic condition caused by an extra chromosome. Individuals affected have mild cognitive delays and physical characteristics that include slanted eyes and a flattened nose.
The Global Down Syndrome Foundation, which is based in Colorado, had previously teamed up with former Denver Broncos wide receiver Ed McCaffrey for Dare to Play football and Dare to Cheer cheerleading events out west.
McCaffrey enlisted the help of Shanahan, who coached him in Denver, and Billick, who coached him in college at Stanford University, to put on the Annapolis program.
“This is one of the biggest blessings I’ve ever had in my life,” McCaffrey told the crowd. “We’ve had so much fun doing it in Colorado. We’re so happy to be in Annapolis to do our first one here.”
Billick hopes Dare to Play and Dare to Cheer becomes an annual event in Annapolis.
“This is the first time I’ve been a part of this, and I plan on doing it going forward,” said Billick, who lives on the Eastern Shore. “Hopefully we can build this event to a larger event here in Annapolis.”
The football players were teamed up with players from the Naval Academy, who guided them on the field. Boys from the Severn School in Severna Park shouted encouragement from the sidelines.
Navy seniors Matt Shibata of Hawaii and Jerad Fehr of Utah said they were inspired by the passion of the young players.
“These kids love the game — shoot, maybe more than we do,” said Fehr, a safety.
Shibata said working with children with developmental disabilities reminds him to be grateful for the abilities he has.
“You learn to appreciate the things you have,” said Shibata, a wide receiver.
The game was kind of managed chaos, but a happy chaos. The players ranged from pipsqueaks too small for their jerseys to teens who could run fast and throw some juke moves to evade defenders.
There were as many coaches and volunteers on the field as players.
Narrating the action was Chris Russell, a Redskins radio personality on ESPN 980 AM. His 10-year-old son Tyler has Down syndrome.
Russell roamed the field, calling the action over the public address system. A video crew taped the event and played highlights on the end zone scoreboards.
In front of the stands, the cheerleaders wore navy and orange uniforms and waved white pompoms with the help of professional cheerleaders for the Denver Broncos and Washington Redskins.
Greg and Lisa Custer of Arnold beamed as they watched their 17-year-old daughter, Valerie, perform with the cheerleaders.
Valerie, who attends Broadneck High School, cheers with a special-needs squad sponsored by the Maryland Twisters club. But that’s a competition squad that doesn’t cheer at sports events.
“Just to give her a chance to be a real cheerleader on the field, to work with professional cheerleaders — it’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity,” Lisa Custer said.
Cathy Hill’s daughter, 19-year-old Victoria, also relished the chance to cheer in a big stadium. She’s also a member of the Maryland Twisters.
Hill praised the professional cheerleaders for helping foster friendships among the girls and the two boys who cheered.
“The biggest thing is, the kids are happy,” she said.

No comments:

Post a Comment