HEROIC ATHLETES: The Magic of Kids Who Know No Boundaries

Another Youth Leaguer Who Overcomes Physical Challenges

 By Doug Abrams

Youth sports headlines these days sometimes seem calculated to make many readers cringe. Stories about parental sniping and even violence. Stories about coaches who cut young kids in tryouts and bench young kids who make the roster. Stories about referees under siege. Stories about financially strapped families unable to afford escalating costs of participation.

But every so often, a news story captures the essence of wholesome athletic competition. The story shines the spotlight on what youth sports can be – a powerful, perhaps unique, vehicle for enriching children’s lives on and off the field.

On September 25, writer Ian Frazer profiled 12-year-old Jack Coggin in the Forsyth County (Ga.) News. The headline tells the story: “Lambert Youth Football Team Embraces Teammate With Cerebral Palsy.”

A few moments after each game, the teams line up, Jack in uniform gets the ball, his Longhorns teammates block for him, opponents clear the path, and he runs for a touchdown. The idea of enrolling Jack came initially from the Longhorns’ coach, and the team’s parents (including Jack’s mother and father) are supportive. “I’ve had one parent say they were upset about their kid’s playing time,” the coach told Frazer, “and after seeing Jack score and how happy he was, it kind of put things in perspective.”

Opening Doors

Jack Coggin’s love for football — and his acceptance by teammates, parents, and opponents — demonstrate that sports can make a difference for physically challenged boys and girls who otherwise might be cast aside. To the maximum extent possible, teams and leagues should encourage children with physical challenges to participate if their parents approve, their abilities permit, and participation does not change the character of the game or compromise safety. Worthwhile programs, such as Little League’s Challenger Division or USA Hockey’s Sled Hockey, serve children whose conditions make integrated play inadvisable or impossible.

The media regularly reports about children with Down syndrome, amputations, or other conditions who earn their teammates’ acceptance, support, and respect. Some of these children  see regular game action; others may serve as team manager, perhaps seeing symbolic action late in selected games, or near the end of the season. One way or another, the Longhorns youth football squad shows that well-crafted encouragement, driven by empathy and understanding, can open doors.

Sports done right enables children with disabilities to learn, enjoy healthy lifestyles, hone their social skills, and develop self-esteem. As they fulfill their needs and desires, these children teach valuable lessons about surmounting barriers through sheer perseverance and determination. A few years ago Sami Stoner, a blind Ohio high school cross country runner who competed accompanied by her guide dog, delivered teammates and opponents a lesson that extends beyond the race course: “Even if you have a disability or you don’t think you can do something, there’s almost always a way.”

Excellence and Adventure

Journalist George F. Will is right that, “Sports serve society by providing vivid examples of excellence.” Experience in sports, concurred writer James A. Michener, “enlarge[s] the human adventure.”

Excellence and the human adventure extend beyond the scoreboard. Not reflected by any posted numbers, few examples of excellence emerge more vivid than examples set by athletes who overcome physical barriers to play to their best. And the human adventure assumes sharper focus when athletes who set the example, and team members and even opponents who support them, have not yet left their teen years.

Legendary basketball coach John Wooden explained the core stimulus basic in athletic and non-athletic endeavors alike: “Do not let what you cannot do interfere with what you can do.” In public schools and youth leagues, the impulse to include, rather than exclude, children marks youth sports at its best.  Inclusion is good for young athletes with disabilities, good for their teammates and opponents, and good for America.
Sources: Ian Frazer, Lambert Youth Football Team Embraces Teammate With Cerebral Palsy, Forsyth County (Ga.) News, Aug. 24, 2017; Douglas E. Abrams, Youth Sports Heroes of the Month: Wakana Ueda, Sami Stoner, Doug Wells and Taylor Howell, http://www.momsteam.com/blind-athletes/youth-sports-heroes-month-wakana-ueda-sami-stoner-doug-wells-taylor-howell (2012).