Getting in the game: Schools open up sports opportunities to students with disabilities

Published: Tuesday, Dec. 18, 2012 5:30 a.m. CDT • Updated: Wednesday, Dec. 19, 2012 8:00 p.m. CDT
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(Sandy Bressner – sbressner@shawmedia.com)
Mack Schweizer shoots the ball during practice with the St. Charles East Fighting Saints Special Olympics basketball team.

There aren’t many sports Jack McGraw doesn’t follow.

The 13-year-old student at Haines Middle School in St. Charles is a fan of just about every sport. If it were up to him, he wouldn’t hesitate to tear up the court or field as a student-athlete.

Those opportunities don’t come often because Jack’s cerebral palsy – a group of disorders that can involve brain and nervous system functions, including movement – restricts him to his motor-powered wheelchair.

But in the fall, he got the opportunity to shine on the football field when he scored a touchdown in Haines’ Oct. 2 game against Rotolo Middle School’s gold team.

Before the season, Haines coach Sean Masoncup hatched an idea to get him a touchdown and kept the plan secret from players until the moment it happened.

“That was awesome,” Jack said while his mother, Jill McGraw, translated for him. “I was almost jumping out of my seat.”

Jill McGraw said it was an exciting moment for her, too.

“Just to hear the crowd yelling the second he got down there – everyone was cheering his name,” she said.

She said the sobering reality that Jack can’t play sports was tough to handle initially, but noted her son has a great attitude.

“You think there’s nothing you can’t do,” she said, addressing Jack. “Well, there is. For him, the lines are a little more marked. There are many ways he can contribute, and the vast majority are on the sidelines.”

Some area schools are opening up sports opportunities for students with disabilities, particularly in basketball – Jack’s favorite sport.

At St. Charles East High School, the Illinois Special Olympics team has started a tradition that includes interaction with high school athletes at the varsity level.

Megan Payleitner, a Special Olympics coach at East, said the Special Olympics basketball team, made up of 16 students, will play the boys varsity basketball team in January – a now annual event started by accident last winter.

The East Special Olympics team was scheduled to play a game against another Special Olympics team, but snowy weather kept the opponents from making it.

“It was a 5-minute panic,” said Sarah Seward, a Special Olympics assistant coach and coach for the varsity girls basketball team.

But the problem was resolved when the boys varsity basketball team agreed to step in and play against the Special Olympics team.

“They loved playing against the boys,” said Payleitner, adding the team got to wear Saints jerseys. “They feel like they’re playing for their school and they love that team aspect. Even though it was a snowy day, the school support was huge. We had cheerleaders, a spotlight and an announcer.”

Payleitner said students participate in bowling, swimming and track and field throughout the year, but basketball is among the most popular.

While the team plays against the boys varsity team, they try to get in about eight practices with the girls varsity team before the big game, which is slated for 6 p.m. Jan. 23.

“I think our girls look forward to ISO practice more than regular practice,” Seward said. “They get more out of it than our Special Olympians do.”

Payleitner said student participation in Special Olympics events has doubled in the past two years. She said students get the physical benefits of playing a sport and social benefits through interactions with others more often.

“I think they get such a feeling of acceptance,” Seward said. “It’s not forced.”

For seasoned Special Olympics players Johnny Guckien, Grant Sturgeon, Dan Tiltges and Daniel Walsh, last year’s game against the varsity boys team was more than memorable. The four high schoolers said they’re looking forward to facing off with the team again this year.

“It was great,” said Sturgeon, a senior and a manager for the boys varsity basketball team. “I got the feeling of home court.”

As he gets ready to enter high school, Jack McGraw is excited by the prospect of playing on a court with his friends and teammates. Jill McGraw said students always have treated her son well, but an opportunity like that would help Jack feel more like he’s part of a team, like he did when he scored that touchdown in September.

“It was kind of an experience they all shared,” Jill McGraw said. “It did give them something to talk about.”

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