If you like your football served up with a large portion of unbridled joy, Canvas Stadium was the place to be Monday evening.
That’s because Special Olympics Unified teams from Fort Collins and Boulder were squaring off in a flag football game that serves as the unofficial kickoff to Rocky Mountain Showdown week. Teams donned the school colors of their home universities and celebrated great plays with hugs, high fives and smiles as wide as Sonny Lubick Field.
“I love being part of this because there’s a lot of joy here today,” said Joel Dreessen, a former CSU and Denver Broncos great who was serving as honorary coach of the Fort Collins team. “It’s so cool to be able to watch them play this game in a big-time stadium with a lot of fans cheering them on. Honestly, I feel blessed to be part of this.”
The annual game, now in its fourth year locally, began as part of a project inspired by ESPN to bring Unified teams together during rivalry weeks across the country. Several schools have joined in the fun, staging games in the days leading up to major rivalries.
Co-ed teams of 16 players square off, and everyone gets to play. The Fort Collins team held on for a 32-26 win, and the celebration was as joy-filled as any you’ll see during the upcoming football season.
“It means the world”
Jeff Franklyn, senior director of competitive programs for Special Olympics Colorado, said teams practice for months leading up to this annual game and the subsequent fall season.
“For them to be able to play in this game is a dream come true,” Franklyn said. “Our athletes get so excited to play in this beautiful stadium and be part of this game. It really means the world to them.”
CSU, which has had a partnership with Special Olympics for a number of years, and CU do their part to create a truly special game-day experience. The players get to run out of the stadium tunnel as their names are announced, and the National Anthem is performed by a singer in Special Olympics.
Surrounding the field are cheerleaders from CSU and CU, along with mascots CAM the Ram and Chip the Buffalo. Dozens of CSU athletes from the CSU football, men’s and women’s basketball, softball, soccer and volleyball teams were on hand to cheer for the teams. During halftime, the Panthers special needs dance group performed.
Kendle Moore, a sophomore point guard, was part of a large group representing the CSU men’s basketball team. He was loving the celebrations by the athletes after big plays.
“I had never been to one of these games but I’m glad I came today,” he said. “These athletes come to support us when we play, so why not support them? They’re all having fun, and that’s what it’s all about.”
Not that there weren’t some impressive performances. Eric Brown from Fort Collins had the crowd cheering with his long touchdown reception that included a juke around a defender that would have made the Broncos’ Emmanuel Sanders proud. And the best celebration came from Fort Collins’ Michael Hulings, whose teammates surrounded him with a post-touchdown hug – with everyone jumping up and down in unison.
“I’ve been playing for years,” Hulings said after the game, still wearing a huge smile. “I loved it. I loved it all.”