KRAVITZ: In Unified Sports, there are no winners or losers, and inclusion is what matters in the end

Bob Kravitz

NOBLESVILLE, Ind. - From the time they are born, they are put into boxes:

Special ed.

Intellectually or developmentally disabled.

Different, so different, from the general population.

Here, though, it's a sun-splashed Saturday afternoon at the Noblesville High School football field, and here, playing unified flag football, these young men and women belong. Here, they are part of a team, part of the school they attend, even if many spend part of their time in special classes. Here, they are football players, hearing the cheers of a crowd. Each flag football team has five players on the field at a time, three of them "athletes" (those are the special ed kids) and two of them "partners" (the general education kids, some of whom compete in mainstream sports at their schools).

"You might need these," Lee Lonzo is telling me when we meet at the stadium. Lonzo, a long-time coach and educator at Carmel who is now doing consulting for the IHSAA and other organizations, hands me a pack of Kleenex.

Soon enough, we'll both need them.

Because if you want to feel good about the human condition during these difficult times, spend an hour at a unified flag football game, or a few more hours at a unified track meet, where worlds collide and come together to make a better sporting universe. Sports don't often move you; Unified Sports do in a way that is truly inspiring.

"When you see these kids go out on the field for the first time…" Lonzo said. His voice wavered, and there were tears. "…It just fills you with such joy to see them like that."

Today, it's Noblesville versus Carroll, and while the outcome isn't the bottom line in all of this, the Millers won the regional 24-0 and will play for the state championship next weekend at the Colts complex. But here is the real bottom line, the one that makes you reach for those Kleenex: It's the way these sports have helped the athletes, the kids who've been separated and put in boxes and harassed and bullied for so long, who, through Unified Sports, become part of something bigger than themselves. They are Noblesville High School athletes, or they are Carroll High School athletes, just the same as the star football and basketball players at both schools.

"I think the gen-ed students come in thinking, `We'll do it for them' and they end up doing it with them, and they come out of it saying, `We got more out of it than they did,'" Lonzo said. "It's almost universal. And then you see what the special-ed kids get out of it, it's beautiful. It's beautiful."

The sports, which comes under the guise of the IHSAA, are like any other sport, except without the cheerleaders (yet). There are cheering crowds in the stands. There is media coverage on the IHSAA's streaming channel. There are introductions over the public-address system; one athlete hears his name and does a cartwheel. Another, who has eye black smeared on his face, strikes the Usain Bolt pose. There is the national anthem, players standing at attention, some with their right hand over their heart.

The program, which was conceived by members of the IHSAA Student Advisory Committee, involves 24 teams throughout the state. The Unified Track Program has more than 90. It is a national program, but Indiana was committed to getting involved, and now they are looking at continuing the sports' growth. They also will be adding wheelchair sports.

"It builds relationships, not only between the special-ed kids but between the special-ed and gen-ed kids," said Noblesville coach Matt Johnston. "They're able to see each other in school and have a real excitement about playing the game together. They talk to the teachers about it all the time. In fact, one of the teachers came up to me the other day and said, `Man, they keep telling us we've got to come out to their games.' They can't stop talking about it. They're so hyped up and excited about participating."

There are no boxes here. That's the last thing these young people need are more boxes, more days spent being viewed as different, as Others. This is about inclusion. This is about mainstreaming. On this field, these athletes, these partners, are co-equals, all of them playing for their schools but more, for the glory of sport. In an age when sportsmanship seems to be dying a slow death, these games are all about lifting one another up, whether it's a teammate or an opponent.

Watching the partners with the athletes Saturday brings an uncommon joy to your heart, the way they guide them – "Move up! Move up!" – to the way they help them when they fall, the way they put their arms around them after a good play or a bad one.

During the game, I can't take my eyes off Cade Heller, a Noblesville athlete with Down's Syndrome. Every time he leans over to snap the ball to his quarterback, he makes sure to high five the opposing nose tackle.

On one play during the game, one of the Noblesville athletes, Miguel Mojica, dropped a sure touchdown pass, but as he made his way back to the huddle, his head down, both teammates and opponents slapped him on the back. "Good try, good try," they said. "You'll get the next one."

By the time he got to the sideline, he turned to some people and smiled.

"Just wait," he said, smiling broadly, turning to a WTHR reporter with a TV camera. "I'll get the next one. You watch."

Kleenex, please.

"We've seen a huge change in him"

Nobody thinks Noblesville's Blake Buckner is an "athlete." There's no way. He's got speed to burn. He is tall for a 16 year-old junior. He's got sure hands. He looks like he should be playing for the Millers' varsity team.

"We hear that all the time," his father, A.B. Buckner, is saying as he stands on the sidelines before the game. "`You don't have enough partners out there!' We tell them he's high-functioning autistic and that he's an athlete, but people don't believe it."

Here on this field, he's not only an athlete, but he's a good one. When he was younger, though, he was in his box. Blake, one of four special-needs children adopted by A.B. and Lynn Buckner -- there's a special place in heaven for that couple -- was the target of bullies despite his stature. His mother was telling me: One time in middle school, a couple of students told Blake, "Hey, you see that girl? The really cute one? She told me she likes you. Why don't you go up and smack her on the butt." Blake, who, like so many special-ed students, wanted desperately to be liked and included, approached the young lady and smacked her on the backside.

He ended up in the principal's office, but justice prevailed: The students who put Blake up to it got in trouble, too. More trouble, in fact.

Blake wanted to try out for the Noblesville track team, but when his family learned about Unified Sports – he already competes in Special Olympics -- they knew they'd found a home. Blake is a stud in both areas, and he loves when people tell him about it. "It's so cool in school, people high-five me in the hallway and tell me how good I am," he said later. "It's so much fun."

The Buckners have seen so much growth from their son since he began in Unified Sports, they are hard-pressed to quantify it.

"We've seen a huge change in him," A.B. said. "He always liked school, but he likes it a lot more and it's helped him academically. He's got a lot more friends who he sees every day. It's opened so many doors for him, especially socially. He can be really, really shy, but he's a lot more open with people now, especially once he gets to know you.''

Said his mother, Lynn: "He's been in Special Olympics since he was 8, and it's something he flourishes at. It makes him feel like one of the guys. I love to see how he lights up with sports. It's interesting how people judge by looks, but with intellectual disabilities, such as an invisible disability, people don't understand it. But this helps him so much with his self-esteem, and it's an incentive for him to do well in school."

"He knows he's different and compares himself a lot to others, but then he gets on the field for Unified Sports or Special Olympics, and he shines. It's really helped him become more comfortable in his own skin. I'm so excited more schools are going to Unified Sports because it not only helps the athletes, but the partners, too, because it gives them a much better understanding, and there's such a camaraderie with the kids. He's always been trying to find his niche, and for Blake, I think sports are his niche."

Just the other day, the Buckners filled out the papers necessary for Blake to receive his Noblesville letterman's jacket. He will be able to walk through the halls of Noblesville High School and be recognized as a Millers athlete, just like the kids on the football and basketball teams.

"That's his Christmas present," Lynn said with a smile.

Said A.B.: "I'm not sure he's ever going to take it off. Ever."

Kleenex, please.

"You're not watching, you're playing"

I talked to parents. I talked to partners, who, to a man (or one young woman), said they get as much from Unified Sports as the athletes do. The coaches and officials, some are paid and some are not, and several who are paid donate their money to Special Olympics. Mostly, though, they do it from the heart.

"I think the gen-ed students come in thinking, `We'll do it for them' and then they end up doing it with them, and they come out of it saying, `We got more out of it than they did,' and it's universal," Lonzo said. "But when you see what the special-ed kids get out of it, it's beautiful. It really is."

I talked to Mitch Bonar, a Noblesville graduate and a sophomore at Ivy Tech, who has cerebral palsy, mitochondrial dysfunction and autism. He also has a mission: To continue the growth of Unified Sports, to sing their praises in speeches all over the state. The way he sees it, Unified Sports have changed his life, and he is committed to making sure it changes more lives along the way as Unified Sports grow throughout Indiana and the country.

Once, he, too, was in a box. He was different. He's still different, but it's a difference he celebrates. Best yet, his school celebrated him, having him speak at graduation. He opened eyes when he went to prom with Abby Abel, who is now a student-athlete playing basketball for Purdue.

But when he was younger, it was difficult, as it is for so many disabled kids who become targets of bullying and harassment.

"Once, a friend asked me to come over to his house, and then we went out and he ditched me," Bonar said. "He left me alone at a golf course (Fox Prairie) and it was freezing cold and snowing. I just walked around for hours until I found someplace where the people could call my parents."

Later in life, he found Unified Sports, and suddenly, he belonged. No boxes, no separation. There were athletes and there were partners, and there was true friendship. Even with some athletes and partners from rival schools, like Carmel.

"We're not supposed to like anybody from Carmel, right?" he said, laughing. "You know Noblesville and Carmel. Big rivalry."

"It made me feel like I belong. At school, it was tough sometimes, people making fun of my last name, making fun of me for different things so they could feel better about themselves. But I made so many friends for life in Unified Sports. Doing this, it inspired me to go to college. It gave me a purpose, you know? I know I'm different, but competing made me feel like a regular Noblesville High School athlete. We had team dinners. At lunch, I'd sit with my new friends. It was the best thing that ever happened. That's why I tell everybody about Unified Sports. I want to see them grow. It's so important."

After the game, Johnston gathered his team together and told them they'd be playing next week at the Colts' complex.

"Do I need to bring any money?" one player asked.

Johnston smiled. "No, you're not watching, you're playing. You don't need any money."

Later, Blake stood and did a TV interview. The words, so many of them, spilled excitedly from his mouth. He had never been in front of a camera before and was soaking up the attention as his father proudly looked on.

So I grabbed Mojica, one of Blake's best friends on the team and a fellow athlete.

"So who's the better player, you or Blake?" I wondered.

"Oh, I don't know," he said. "I think we're both great players. Everybody on our team is great."

"You're heading to the Indiana state championship next weekend. How does that make you feel?"

He cast his eyes downward.

"It makes me a little sad," he said.

Excuse me? Sad?

"Yeah, because that other team (Carroll), they work just as hard as we do and they lost the game," he said. "So it's a little bit sad."

Kleenex, please.

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