Photo by Gabriel Stovall
Lynne Connelly, the director of the Union Grove special needs football team, poises with team member Michael Lind, who is nicknamed Bulldog.
STOCKBRIDGE — Walk into Woodland High School’s football stadium on a crisp, fall night in October and you get hit with the smell of burgers and hot dogs sizzling on the grill.
The band is whipped up into a frenzy of school spirit as it blasts the Union Grove fight song. Cheerleaders are uplfiting the spirits of the crowd, and the school banners are raised and awaiting the players to burst through at any given moment.
It sounds like your typical Friday night football scene. But this night is different. Indeed, there were lights. And football was definitely in force.
But these athletes weren’t armed with helmets and pads.
Instead, they were adorned with flags attached to belts around their waists. What they may have lacked in football size, they more than made up for in heart and competitiveness.
Special-Needs Football League is the unofficial name given to a group of kids from Union Grove, Woodland, Ola, Rockdale County and Jackson high schools who compete against each other with no regard to the obstacles special-needs students often face.
“It gives them an opportunity they otherwise don’t get to come out and play regular football,” said Tiffany Price, one of the league directors since 2008. “When they come out here with the band and concessions and everything, they get to be just like everyone else.”
Price has been working with special-needs students for years, dating her first interests to her days as a student at Stockbridge High School, from which she graduated in 2007. She currently is a special-needs paraprofessional at Woodland High School, where she helped form the Woodland Warriors special-needs football team.
Price said that the teams are open to all middle and high school special-needs students who want to participate. The students who make up the four squads have a variety of challenges to overcome — from learning disabilities and autism to Down’s Syndrome.
The league is helped along by parents and other school faculty members who willingly serve as volunteer coaches and concession workers. And the school bands come out in full support, helping to create an authentic high school football atmosphere.
On this night in early October, it was the Union Grove band that did the honors. Price said varsity football players from each school also come to help, and even to cheer the special-needs players on.
Lynne Connelly, the director of the Union Grove team, said all the players receive varsity treatment in this league, complete with an end-of-the-year banquet where they will all don Super Bowl rings.
They even get letter jackets, Connelly said.
“It’s good because it kind of creates a common bond between our kids and the varsity football players,” she said. “It gives them a little swagger as they walk down the hall, and something to talk about and relate with them about at school.”
Some of the players even have nicknames — like Union Grove’s Michael Lind.
“They call me Bulldog,” Lind said, while awaiting his time to get back on the field.
As for the halftime show, how about a cheerleader dance-off? Cheerleaders from each participating school come together in a circle and dance together as music blares through the sound system. Parents, students and fans in the stands stand and clap and sing along as encouragement to the kids.
“Halftime is definitely my favorite part,” Connelly said.
She and Price also said that the league is always looking for more volunteers, more kids and more teams to help expand. And for parents who want to get their child involved, or become involved themselves, Connelly says it’s as easy getting in touch with your school’s special education department.
“If your school doesn’t have a team, we’ll hook them up in a cluster to the team that’s closest,” Connelly said.
As she’s talking, a Woodland player scores a touchdown, touching off boisterous cheers from the fans of both schools.
The scoreboards are on and a bright orange “7” appears, signifying the Woodland score.
But don’t be surprised if, in this gridiron battle, nobody’s paying attention to the score. These kids are too busy competing and having fun.
“It’s just like a Friday night,” Connelly said. “We do keep score, but a lot of times nobody knows who won. Everybody won.”