Special Olympics takes the field with former NFL players

To kick off this past football weekend, Special Olympics Notre Dame hosted a flag football game against Michigan’s Special Olympics team. The event was covered by ESPN and featured former NFL players Mike Golic, Jr. and Desmond Howard.

Special Olympics Notre Dame (SOND) is a student-run service club founded in 2010 for children and adults with intellectual disabilities from the South Bend area. Throughout the year, SOND holds various sports practices, tournaments, and events with varsity sports teams, as well as family picnics and get-togethers.

Athletes and students in the club practiced football for two weeks this August, learning how to throw, catch, and pull flags, before representing Notre Dame on the field. Fifteen Special Olympics athletes – ten from Notre Dame and five from Michigan – faced off on Friday, August 31, the day before the long-awaited football game against Michigan.

The game involved five players on a side, three Special Olympics athletes and two students. Each side also featured honorary captains from ESPN: former Notre Dame offensive lineman Mike Golic, Jr., and former Michigan wide receiver and 1991 Heisman Trophy winner Desmond Howard. This very spirited pair gave pre- and post-game speeches, introduced the athletes, and cheered on the teams.

Thanks to the presence of these former players and of College GameDay on campus, the flag football game was co-sponsored by ESPN, who provided sideline gear, noisemakers for the crowd, and a full media crew to cover the game. A short clip aired on GameDay the following day, and a longer feature will air on SportsCenter on October 10, highlighting the game as part of the National Special Olympics’ 50th Anniversary.

“I was very fortunate to be a part of this,” said Desmond Howard on the GameDay clip televised on Saturday. “It was just a lot of fun…It was a great time out there for everybody. I was honored to be a part of that.”

Zayn Gunn, an SOND athlete, played a key role in the game as quarterback but also pulled many flags on defense and scored a touchdown for Notre Dame. When the Rover asked him what he would tell readers about the game, he said, “I would tell them it was the best day ever. I got to play football with friends and play at number one Notre Dame. I think all the people had the best day ever.”

Barb Gunn, Zayn’s grandmother, was incredibly thankful to SOND and all who participated in the game, saying, “I also want to thank you for your time and energy given to my grandson and all the other kids. You make their life special and they will remember your kindness always.”

Junior Ben Yankelitis, co-vice president of SOND, expressed his pride in the success of the event. “We were proud to host Friday’s Unified Flag Football event,” he told the Rover. “Our team of student volunteers works with the South Bend Special Olympics athletes weekly, witnessing them overcome physical and mental challenges. We are excited to provide them with the spotlight they deserve.”

“All of the athletes had a great time competing with their super star captains,” said sophomore Sofie Palumbo, SOND Event Coordinator. “We were incredibly honored to be featured on ESPN’s College GameDay and look forward to continuing our rivalry next year!”

The game series will continue in Ann Arbor when Notre Dame plays the University of Michigan again in October 2019. Until then, the club will be hard at work practicing for a soccer tournament this fall against other Midwestern colleges’ Special Olympics teams.

Monica VanBerkum is a junior living in Cavanaugh Hall and studying anthropology and theology. Experience her painfully mediocre soccer skills at SOND practices this fall! Email Monica at mvanber1@nd.edu.