Queen Creek High School just finished the second season of its Unified Sports flag football program and is moving into the spring sports season starting up in January when school begins back after the winter break.
Unified Sports is a high school-sponsored program inspired by the Special Olympics program, which is nationwide.
Although Coach Richard Eames explained that the Unified Sports is modeled after the Special Olympics system there is one key difference — it is composed of both general education and special education students.
The program integrates special education athletes with both junior varsity and varsity players from their respective school. The teams are not separated by ability, but are a combined effort by all.
The JV and varsity athletes are referred to as “partners”; they serve as game coaches and often as players in the various Unified games.
Currently there are upwards of 10 other high schools in the Queen Creek/East Valley area that compete in the Unified league, allowing special needs students to play for his or her high school in a way that is often unavailable.
Often there are community organizations that offer opportunities for kids and young adults of all abilities to play in various sports, but very few programs exist where students can actually play for their high school alongside their peers.
Queen Creek High participates in flag football, track and basketball. Unified sports seasons coincide with regular season high school sports; football began at the start of the school year and ended the final week in October. Aligning Unified seasons with regular high school seasons adds to the program’s mission of inclusion, which Coach Eames works to promote in players and partners alike.
This flag football season Unified Sports Coach Eames took a different approach to how the program would function.
“This year I wanted the partners to be a little more involved,” Coach Eames, who is a special education teacher at Queen Creek High, said. “So I had the student partners get to be the field coaches. They really are much more involved this year which I think they really enjoyed.”
The team dynamic is important to both the players and the partners. This season’s heightened partner involvement brought out more enthusiasm with the players as well; this is seen through the increase in general education students that volunteered to coach in the program. However, the peer partners are not only coaches, but friends and encouragers as well.
“I am even trying out for tackle football next year, (the partners) told me to come and play with them,” Talon McCabe, a QCHS special education student and Unified Sports player said. “They said I would be the fastest one and said they know I could do it.”
Unified Sports offers a unique opportunity not only for QCHS special education students, but also to the partners involved in the program. Through the Unified Sports program brothers Kaiden and Khobe Tyre, have been able to play alongside each other, regardless of their different abilities. Kaiden serves as a partner for the program, and his brother Khobe is a special education player on the team.
“When (Khobe) first started playing basketball he was actually really good at it. He got really popular off of that,” senior partner Kaiden said. “He played football this year with a broken hand. It is really fun getting to play with my brother. He’s actually probably better than me.”
Another unique aspect of Unified Sports is that it is co-ed and spans all grade levels. This year the QCHS Unified flag football team had four female players, almost as many as male players. Despite being slightly outnumbered the girls are essential additions to the team.
“(The boys) treat me like I’m royalty,” player Madilynn Underwood said. “At first I was pretty scared to play, but then just like that I changed my mind and said. ‘I’ll do it,’ and I did awesome. I have a very good football arm.”
This season the QCHS Unified team played in five season games and a three-game tournament. The team swept the tournament by winning all three final games.
Just like other high school athletic programs competition is a part of the Unified program, parents serve as supporters and school uniforms are worn.
“People think we are different, but we are the same too,” player Jacob Reyes said. “This is the same (school), the same ball and the same teamwork.”
Other dynamics that are present in JV and varsity high school programs are also present in the Unified program. Two of these, as described by Coach Eames and the partners, are sportsmanship and character building. These remain critical to the mission of Unified sports.
“The teamwork is similar (to other programs). Unified Sports really helps everyone involved,” player Jacob Ouimette said. “In Unified Sports we don’t judge, we don’t mock. We make great bonds and we stick together.”
All Unified games have free spectator admission.
To get involved or find more information on the program, contact Mrs. Howe at 480-987-5973 to learn about the Bulldog Buddies Booster Club.
Editor’s note: Rilee Robinson is a student at the Arizona State University Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication. This story will fulfill a class assignment.