Patriots in the huddleDec 01, 2023 12:02PM ● By Tricia Hoadley
If one were to assess the bell curve progress of any new sports team, be it professional, collegiate or at the high school level, it would be logical and historically accurate to start at the very bottom -- the cellar basement mulligan that awaits any newborn team as they learn the system and create a culture of winning.
Then there is the unified football program at Newark Charter School, who has singularly destroyed this well-established precedent.
In 2016, the team’s inaugural season, the Patriots won the Delaware State Unified Flag Football Championship. In 2017, they took home another state championship, and in 2018, they went to their third state championship game but were defeated late in the game. In subsequent years, they have remained competitive and have reached the final four in the state tournament every year.
Hidden in all the trophied-up accolades -- and behind the banners that hang in the school’s gymnasium -- lay the true purpose of what the unified flag football program at Newark Charter School has meant and stands for: the spirit of competition magnified by the power of inclusion.
It is all summed up in three photographs framed and mounted on the office wall of Athletics Director Greg Shivery that depict a student-athlete in flag football action, and in one photo, the athlete is flashing a triumphant ear-to-ear smile and is surrounded by his joyous teammates.
“Eric Anderson, a former student here who is also a Special Olympics athlete, scored three touchdowns in those two state championship games,” Shivery said, pointing to the photos on the wall. “From the start, Eric just brought a lot to the table of those teams. I worked in special education for a long time, and the common misconception about special education is that much of the focus is on a person’s weaknesses.
“While not ignoring those weaknesses, we focus on an athlete’s strengths – like we did with Eric -- and the coaches who have been involved in unified flag football here have been very good at identifying the strengths of our students with disabilities and use those strengths to the benefit of the team.”
Enormous growth of unified sports
By the time Kylie Frazer, senior director of sports and competition at Special Olympics Delaware helped to bring unified flag football to Delaware schools eight years ago, the sport had already gained solid footing around the U.S.
With the help of legislation and the passage of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) and the growth of inclusive educational models in the 1990s, laws began to open avenues of socialization for students with disabilities. Beau Doherty, president of Special Olympics Connecticut, began to work with Special Olympics founder Eunice Kennedy Shriver to develop what would become unified sports – a fully inclusive sports program that unites Special Olympics athletes (individuals with intellectual disabilities) and partners (individuals without intellectual disabilities) as teammates for training and competition.
By 2008, more states were joining the movement and unified sports programs were being established at high schools around the country, in partnership with the U.S. Department of Education.
Worldwide, about 1.2 million athletes take part in unified sports, and to support its global reach, the ESPN network has served as the Global Presenting Sponsor of Special Olympics Unified Sports since 2013, supporting the growth and expansion of this program that empowers individuals with and without intellectual disabilities.
As a Special Olympics Unified Champion school, Newark Charter’s unified flag football program promotes social inclusion, and with football as its foundation, the model offers a unique combination of practical activities that equip young people with tools and training to create sports, classroom, and school climates of acceptance where athletes with disabilities feel welcome and are routinely included in and feel a part of all activities, opportunities and functions.
The idea of bringing the unified flag football – and unified basketball -- to Newark Charter in 2016 made a lot of sense to Shivery, who once coached a Special Olympics basketball team when he was a teenager.
“The formation of this program from the start was going to be about our athletes and their partners working together, but at the same time, we were going to teach all of them how to be competitive,” he said.
“As each season progresses, you really start to see our partners begin to take our athletes under their wings, and the higher caliber athlete and the lower-caliber athlete work together on the field,” said Theresa Repole, now in her third year as an assistant coach for the unified flag football team. “When a coach yells in a play, the partners take what is complex and break it down to the athletes, and to see that play go off without a hitch is awesome.”
Newark Charter School’s unified flag football team’s seven-game schedule continues at Appoquinimink High School on Oct. 19, followed by a game on Oct. 24 at Middletown High School and a road contest against William Penn on Nov. 2. The 2023 season concludes with a home game against McKean High School on November 9, beginning at 7 p.m. at the new Robert W. Gore Stadium on campus.
More unified sports teams in the future?
Today, unified sports programming is in more than 8,300 schools across the United States, with a goal of being in 10,000 schools by 2024. As the unified flag football and unified boys’ basketball programs continue to thrive at Newark Charter, Shivery said that the possibility of adding additional unified sports at the school will be driven by outside agencies like the Delaware Interscholastic Athletic Association as well as the State of Delaware.
“In Delaware, we’re going to continue to see unified sports expand,” said Repole, who is a member of the unified sports committee for the Delaware Interscholastic Athletic Association. “It’s in many of the public schools now, and while some schools have dropped off, all it takes is to reignite these programs is someone to support it. Eventually, unified sports won’t just include flag football and basketball, but possibly track teams as well.
“We have the student population here at Newark Charter to develop that idea.”
As an athletic director for a school who fields two unified sports teams, Shivery is asked to describe the special moments he gets to see on the court or on the field during unified games. Again, he pointed to the photographs of Eric Andrews on his office wall.
“I have seen the pure joy that our student-athletes show when they are successful in competition,” Shivery said. “I love the moments when I see a student-athlete score a three-pointer and skip back downcourt dishing out high-fives to his teammates.
“When Eric scored his first touchdown back in 2016, I got to witness the joy on his face and the joy of his teammates around him. Eric used to tell me every day, ‘Coach Greg, I haven’t had a bad day in my life.’ That sense of positivity is infectious. Our student-athletes bring that to their partners on our teams and they start to feel that positivity.
“Unified sports are about much more than just winning. It’s about getting kids with disabilities connected with their peers and accomplishing these moments, together. To me, there is nothing more important than that.”
To learn more about the athletics program at Newark Charter School – including unified flag football and unified basketball – visit www.ncspatriotssports.com.
To learn more about the Special Olympics Unified Sports programs and how to get involved in your local community, visit specialolympics.org.
Newark Charter School’s Fall 2023 Unified Flag Football Team Roster
Head Coach: Jake Schneider
Assistant Coach: Theresa Repole