Home football games at JMU are always an exciting spectacle for students, faculty, alumni, and fans. However, for 60 Special Olympics Athletes, the yearly visit to Bridgeforth Stadium provides much more than a thrilling college football game.
Special Olympics is a worldwide organization that allows men and women with intellectual disabilities to participate in Olympic-style sporting events. The organization has been in place since the late 1960s, and has been responsible for helping change the lives of millions of people with intellectual disabilities across the globe.
With 3.7 million athletes in nearly 170 countries, Special Olympics has taken on an international charge to assist men, women and children with disabilities through education, health programs, and sports. In the state of Virginia, with the help of its 20,000 volunteers, Special Olympics has impacted over 11,000 athletes that come from seven regions across the state. On Saturday, September 8, 2012, 60 Special Olympics athletes from Virginia were brought to the campus of James Madison University to participate in the sixth annual "Day with the Dukes."
Founded in 2007 by JMU psychology peer advisor and men's tennis player Jesse Tarr, Day with the Dukes has transformed from a one-time community service event, to an annual celebration that is highly-anticipated by both the JMU student-athletes and the Special Olympians. Daniel Leake, Regional Director of Special Olympics Virginia, said, "Day with the Dukes is simply a wonderful partnership between JMU Athletics and Special Olympics. It gives two groups who may not have much contact with each other the opportunity to realize they really are just alike. Each group loves sports, supports their community and realizes through hard work, they can accomplish anything. Our athletes consider this one of the best days of the year."
This year's highlighted activities began with the Special Olympians arriving and being partnered up with a JMU student-athlete and a peer advisor. From there, the athletes proceeded on to Bridgeforth Stadium/Zane Showker Field, where they were greeted by the Marching Royal Dukes and then started the day running drills with members of the JMU football team.
Senior tight end Brian Barlow shared his thoughts on the time spent with the athletes by saying, "I always look forward to the Day with the Dukes. It is a great experience for both the team and the Special Olympians. It is a great feeling to help them have a fun experience during the event. The team always looks forward to participating in this event every year."
After an hour of passing, running routes, and kicking field goals, the athletes moved inside to Godwin Hall, where they participated in activities with members of the men's and women's basketball teams. Finally, the sporting events finished up with a soccer clinic courtesy of the women's soccer team.
Junior guard for the women's basketball team, Kirby Burkholder said, "Day with the Dukes is always a great experience. It's fulfilling to give back and spend some time playing basketball with the people in the program and giving them a good experience."
The day was scheduled to continue with the Special Olympians participating in the brand-new Duke Dog Spirit Walk with the JMU football players. However, mother nature had other plans and canceled the spirit walk, so the athletes were treated to a mini pep rally in Godwin Hall with the JMU Cheerleaders.
Before the start of the football game, a tailgate-style dinner was set up for the athletes. Much of the group departed afterwards as the game was delayed one hour. However, one of the areas remained for the opening minutes of the game vs. Alcorn State while one Special Olympian, Kirk Barnett, was even chosen to assist the referees with the coin toss on the field. Although the athletes were not able to stay to see the game in its entirety, the experiences that they did have with the JMU student-athletes are ones that they will never forget.
Ian Frazier, Special Olympics Athlete and the 2011 Special Olympics Virginia Athlete of the Year said, "We, Special Olympics athletes, are given the opportunity to spend the day one-on-one with a JMU student athlete. We get to hang out with Coach Matthews and the football team, the men's and women's basketball teams, and the women's soccer team. We get to tour the locker rooms, have a tail-gate-party and go to a great football game. One of us even gets to flip the coin with the officials at the 50-yard line. All of that is great but, this event means so much to us because we get treated as if we aren't 'handicapped' and everybody gets to see that we are just like they are with the same hopes and dreams that they have. This event gives people who may not have ever come into contact with a 'handicapped person' the chance to see that we fit in just fine."To learn more about the largest volunteer organization in the world, visit their home page. For information about volunteering as coaches, fundraisers, event planners, or just raising general public awareness for Special Olympics Virginia, visit the Special Olympics Virginia home page.