HARRISONBURG, Va.—Special Olympic athletes from across the state of Virginia were welcomed to the campus of James Madison University by the football, cheerleading and men’s and women’s basketball teams to participate in the seventh annual Day with the Dukes. The day included interaction with the JMU student-athletes and coaches and culminated with attending the football game against Saint Francis.
Day with the Dukes was started in 2007 by former psychology peer advisor and men’s tennis player Jesse Tarr. Special Olympic athletes are paired with a JMU student-athlete and peer advisor to provide them with one-on-one interaction throughout the day.
After being paired with a JMU peer advisor, the athletes ran through the Duke Dog tunnel onto Bridgeforth Stadium/Zane Showker Field, where they were greeted by the Marching Royal Dukes. They were able run drills, practice passing and kick field goals alongside the football team.
“It is always a great experience working with the Special Olympics group because they love getting to spend some time with us just as much as we enjoy our time with them,” said redshirt junior football player Jauan Latney. “It makes you feel warm inside knowing that you are making their day.”
Following their time with the football team, the athletes were led to Godwin Hall where they met up with cheerleaders to take part in a spirit rally and to learn some of the Dukes’ cheers. Afterwards, the Olympians joined the men’s and women’s basketball teams to practice shooting, dribbling and running drills.
“It means a lot to be able to give back to the community,” senior women’s basketball player Kirby Burkholder said. “All of the people here love sports and love to be able to interact with the athletes. It’s a great feeling and we know they love it too.”
After spending time with the JMU student-athletes, the Special Olympians were given time to tailgate and visit the bookstore on campus. The day ended with the James Madison vs. Saint Francis football game at Bridgeforth Stadium.
Day with the Dukes is a partnership between JMU Athletics and the psychology department. The Psychology Service Organization recruits volunteers to serve as buddies to the Special Olympic athletes.
“It’s great to watch the Special Olympians just light up and have a great time laughing and having fun,” head of the Psychology Service Organization, Bill Evans said. “And quite honestly, when they’re doing that the JMU students and athletes are doing the same thing.”