Donna Flannagan, the Special Services Director for the Lawrence County Board of Education, was recently contacted about a unique opportunity being presented to some local students.
“Special Olympics Alabama approached me and asked me about starting a Special Olympics unified football team,” she said. “They said it was going to be in conjunction with the Alabama High School Athletic Association and the 7A state championship game.
“This was a great opportunity for our students, so I asked Steve Jones, who helps out a lot with Special Olympics in Lawrence County, if we could pursue this, and would he be interested in coaching, because I don't know a first down from a touchdown.
“He said he would, so we kind of left it at that. When fall came around we called Special Olympics Alabama and they said they were still going to do it, so we began rounding up our team.”
The Unified league has a distinct set of rules for both games and team make up.
“The unified partner team consists of special needs athletes, students with cognitive and regulational disabilities, and then you have four partners,” Flannagan said. “These are students who do not have intellectual disabilities. We wanted our partners to be role models from each school and also good athletes, because we didn't go into this to lose.
“Steve approached some kids he knew from the community and their coaches, and the only rule for partners is that they cannot be on a football team. So we got basketball and baseball players. That's how we found our partners.
“We had two from Lawrence County and two from East Lawrence. They are absolutely amazing. They're leaders in their schools, and they were so good with the special needs students. They took care of them and looked out for them.”
The teams play a version of flag football on a 25-yard by 60-yard field for two 20-minute halves.
After winning its first couple of games, Lawrence County earned the opportunity to play in the inaugural Unified League title game at the Super 7 state championships hosted by Jordan-Hare Stadium in Auburn.
“To get to the state final we had to go to Hewitt-Trussville and played them and Clay-Chalkville to see who got to go to Jordan-Hare,” Flannagan said. “We won both of those games, and we won them by quite a bit. Then we had to begin the process of how we were going to take these kids to Jordan-Hare in Auburn.
“It was going to be very expensive, and we wanted them to have good experience. We started scrambling to do fundraisers until we had the money to go.”
The opportunity to play for the Unified title was already a big deal for the Lawrence County team, but the scope and magnitude of the contest continued to grow leading up to the game.
“The game just kept getting bigger and bigger,” Flannagan said. “It was going to be televised, then the team was going to be on the news and in all the papers. Media were contacting myself and Steve wanting interviews.
“We realized that what we thought was just going to be a pickup football game was now a big deal to the AHSAA. This was their inaugural game, and it preceded the 7A championship.
“They did everything for us that they did for the other schools competing. It was a major event for our kids. They got to play in Jordan-Hare Stadium, and after they won they rolled Toomer's Corner.
“They got to visit the raptor center and see Nova, the eagle. They got a private tour of the athletic facilities, and several of the football players like Sammie Coates, and they spent a lot of time with our kids. They were playing with them and fellowshipping with them, and they took pictures and signed autographs. It was a great experience for our kids.”
“I knew it wouldn't be an easy road. Hewitt-Trussville had some different players, and they gave us a run for our money.”
Then on Wednesday, Dec. 3, game time finally arrived, and Lawrence County won the inaugural Unified title 26-18. Receiver Josh Smith had five receptions for 59 yards with a touchdown on offense and an interception on defense.
Partner Jesse Childers found Smith for the opening touchdown, and then found Timmy Chaney for another score. Chaney caught another pass for a touchdown later in the game.
Six passers for Lawrence County combined for 124 yards.
“It was a wonderful experience,” Jones said. “The kids really had a good time, especially the Auburn fans.
“It felt wonderful to win. These kids have worked hard, and we've been practicing every weekend since September. They earned every bit of it.
“It's been one of the most rewarding experiences I've ever had. I have a son with Down syndrome, and I've coached him for several years now. I think it's the most enjoyable thing I do in my life.”
Jones said that coaching the Unified team is not that different from any other team in the AHSAA.
“There aren't really more challenges to coaching a team like this, it's just different,” he said. “You probably don't go as in depth with strategy. I've coached my oldest son in baseball, and the competitiveness is the same. The kids want to win, and they know when they do well.”
Now that the Lawrence County Unified team stands as the defending champion (and will always be the very first Unified title holder), it will have to keep working towards defeating the competition.
“We plan on keeping the team going,” Jones said. “We will lose three of our partners to graduation, so I'll need to recruit some new partners. I think I will have the entire Special Olympics crew back next year.
“We will pick back up in the fall and try to schedule more competition. Hopefully there will be more teams. This year there were only four teams in the state able to compete. Several other schools have talked about it but haven't put teams together.
“Next year I would like to have a partner from each of the four high schools in Lawrence County. I'll need a player from R.A. Hubbard, Lawrence County and Hatton.”