Gridiron GloryOctober 12, 2018
Story by Jonathan Saxon
Photos by Nic Antaya
It’s Sept. 29 and the morning sun is already high over the field at Jerry Brewer Alumni Stadium. A group of players and parents are gathering on an unusually warm September morning for some football. And it’s not just a regular-season game, but rather the sectional finals. As is customary, the winners of the games are crowned sectional champions and awarded a trophy plaque to mark what they have achieved this season.
However, it is clear upon first glance that there is something very different about this particular football atmosphere.
There are no helmets or pads worn in this game. Rather than tackling opponents, defenders need only grab at the belt of flags coupled to all the players’ waists. It’s still four quarters of play, however, instead of the typical 11-man lineups, it’s more of a seven-on-seven affair.
But the participants themselves are the best giveaway as to what the fans have in store for the morning’s proceedings. No, they aren’t the Jasper Wildcats varsity football team. And that is not what they are looking to replicate. They are a team of kids who wouldn’t normally participate in organized sports.
That doesn’t mean they’re any less able or enthusiastic when it comes to chasing the rush and glory that goes with scoring a touchdown in front of their loved ones. And thanks to the new program at Jasper High School, they have been able to feel that rush of emotion during this past season.
This fall marked the inaugural year for unified flag football at the school, a coed sports program sponsored by the Indiana High School Athletic Association. It connects special education students with other kids and coaches who want to work with them and help them experience organized sports during their time in school.
JHS chemistry teacher Andy Noblitt serves as the head coach of the team — he’s also a seventh-grade boys basketball coach and a JHS varsity baseball pitching coach — and was excited by the prospect of working with the kids to build a team that’s unlike any other at the school.
“The IHSAA along with Special Olympics came up with the idea of trying to have athletes competing within themselves,” he said. “What we’re trying to do is incorporate those kids that wouldn’t be in a fall sport along with some kids that don’t have the opportunity to play a varsity sport, and mix those two together.”
Jasper High School has had a unified track and field program in the spring for the past couple of seasons, so the unified flag football team was an opportunity to add another sport for the kids to participate in during the fall. It’s structured so that the special needs students (players) are combined with other students (partners), most of whom already know each other from school.
The team held practices three times a week starting in late July, with coaches working closely with the students to teach them the proper rules and techniques for playing flag football. One of the main focuses of the program is making sure there is little or no distinction between the players and partners. Everyone is included and contributes their unique skills and talents for the goal of collective success, just like any other fall sport team.
“One thing the IHSAA tries to work on is not having designations between the two groups,” Noblitt said. “We try not to identify those kids that need extra help and those that don’t. We try to merge those groups as much as possible, and I think that makes for a good situation for everyone involved.”
There are currently 25 unified flag football teams in the state. The three programs in southern Indiana — Jasper, Evansville Central and Floyd Central — were present at Jerry Brewer Alumni Stadium to compete for sectional glory on Sept. 29.
But before games can be played, a team needs practice to get in shape and familiar with schemes. There’s a learning curve for everybody when they take to the field for the first time.
“Being able to catch is a big challenge,” Noblitt said. “Also trying to make decisions on who’s open and who’s not open, understanding what that is all about. And, of course, pulling the flags. Often they’re a little timid about going after somebody that has the ball, so we try to encourage the kids to go and grab the flag of the opposing player. It’s something that took a lot of practice to do.”
But Noblitt and Helming, another volunteer coach who teaches world history at Jasper High School, worked patiently with the kids to get them up to speed and help them develop the sense of confidence needed to assert oneself on the field of play.
“The little victories here and there mean so much to them,” Helming said. “It builds their confidence and gives them a sense of pride and joy.”
Those victories include accomplishing the simple things, such as completing passes, picking up on some of the more complex concepts and getting more comfortable with the play schemes from one practice to another. Watching the kids grow and develop in that regard has been as rewarding for the coaches as it’s been for the players.
“A lot of these kids picked up [plays] really quick,” said Cameron Harris, who serves as an assistant coach on the varsity football team and also helped out with the unified flag football team this fall. “They got the formations, they know what to do. They’re competitive kids, they want to play and they want to do well. They will listen and follow anything you say to do because they want to do well.”
A lot of the benefits in participating in team sports are obvious from a physical perspective. With the exercise routines and constant athletic activity, sports participants are exposed to the benefits of a moving body, which they can take with them for the rest of their lives. But other positive consequences are not so clear on first glance.
Every person has a basic need to feel like they belong to something bigger than themselves, and becoming part of a team is one way that need gets satisfied. Another need is validation, which gets fed by accomplishing feats on the field that lead to a team’s success. People need to feel like they belong and they matter, and everyone should be able to experience that satisfaction.
“Being part of a team — and they’re known in school as being part of our team — is a huge component,” Noblitt said. “[There’s] a lot more high-fives between those kids and the student body. A lot of kids will reach out and tell them, ‘Have a good game tonight,’ and they can identify who’s a part of something special. Just seeing the smiles and hugs is a special moment.”
And it doesn’t just stop with the regular student body at Jasper.
On the Thursday before their sectional games, the unified flag football team got to hang out and watch the varsity team as the players participated in a light walk-through ahead of their game against Mt. Carmel. The unified team also took part in the evening meal with the team after practice. As Harris put it, they are seen as part of the Jasper football family.
“Jasper football is a family from top to bottom — these guys are just an extension of it.” he said. “We consider them part of our family.”
And as such, there were a few varsity players present on the sidelines to watch and support the unified flag football team as it faced Evansville Central and Floyd Central for the sectional championship.
Both games were exciting affairs, as Jasper had to use all of its skills on the ground and through the air in order to get the job done on that historic Saturday. The team thrilled the crowd on offense, and held stout on defense to earn a 40-28 victory over Floyd Central in the first game, and clinch the title with a 43-8 win over Evansville Central.
While winning was sweet, the true treat for the parents came from watching their kids play and achieve on the field in a manner that wouldn’t have been possible without the unified flag football program and all who were involved.
“It’s cool that he gets that chance for enjoyment, excitement, camaraderie and the responsibility that goes with it,” said Jerome Nordhoff, whose son, Adam, played for the team this season and also participated in unified track. Jerome and his wife, Michelle, were in the stands to see Adam score a couple of touchdowns for the Wildcats.
“That’s every parent’s dream,” Jerome said.
“We have three other kids. Adam has been to all of their events,” Michelle added. “He sat there and watched everything. Now he gets to be the one they come and watch. It’s amazing.”
Jasper finished 3-3 on the year and moved on to the regional round of the postseason after winning their sectional, where they lost to Bedford North Lawrence. But outside of the wins and losses, all that were involved were quick to call this first season of unified flag football a success for all that were involved.
“I could not be happier for these kids,” said Harris. “They just have fun. They’re showing that hard work will pay off. I hope they enjoy it and I want their success to continue on.”
Noblitt said there are plans to expand the program statewide, so that every student has the opportunity to reap the benefits of not only athletics, but being part of something positive at this critical juncture in their lives.
“Their goal will be 64 [teams] next year,” Noblitt said. “With our success and being able to talk about the things that go on, we would expect that to expand. I think there are a lot of teams that aren’t participating in the tournament that are just getting things started this year.”
To mark their first season, the students who participated in the unified flag football program are: Patrick Allen, Easton Bair, Ingrid Bies, Caleb Burger, Jennifer Cortez, Emily Dubon, Sam Fritch, Trenton Hopf, Blake Mann, Hudson McCune, Reese Mendoza, Breanna Morrow, Klayton Mundy, Ava Noblitt, Adam Nordhoff, Jordan Preston, Felix Rodriguez and Jarod Witte.
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