|Sixteen members of the UK football team dropped by the Lexington Defenders and Lexington Wildcats practices on Sunday, Feb. 17.
Two Lexington Special Olympics basketball teams got quite a surprise when they showed up for practice on Sunday, February 17. The Lexington Defenders and Lexington Wildcats had some very special guests join them for scrimmages. Sixteen members of the University of Kentucky football team wandered into the two gyms at the Immanuel Baptist Church ROC center for a day none of the athletes – from either group -- would soon forget.
The UK players who scrimmaged the Lexington Wildcats, a 3A (higher level) team, got a little more than they bargained for early.
“I told my guys to take it easy on them at first,” said fullback Cody Jones. “Then we got down by about 10 and I told them to kick it in gear.”
The level of play for the Special Olympics athletes was an eye-opener for the UK players.
“I was really surprised,” said defensive tackle Tristian Johnson, “then I figured out that they practiced a lot. This is a group of guys that have great teamwork, just like our team and they work well as a team. I think playing a group of football players – even though we weren’t basketball players – they came out and played us just like anybody else.”
Johnson added that more than teamwork transcends the sports spectrum.
“The trash talking (from the Lexington Wildcats) was my favorite part about it,” he said. “They just got in inside our face every chance they got. They had a couple blocked shots. They played basketball.”
It was clear from the smiles on both sides that the trash talking was all good natured and that all three teams had a great day together.
|Kentucky defensive tackle Tristian Johnson plays some defense in a scrimmage with the Lexington Wildcats.
“These guys are a blast,” Jones said about his UK teammates. I think they had more fun than (the Special Olympics) athletes did. I think we actually got beat.”
The day ended with a question and answer and autograph session, which proved that the Big Blue Nation transcends disabilities and is all-inclusive. The questions the Special Olympics athletes most wanted answered were “who will win the Louisville game?” and “will you beat Tennessee this year?”
Johnson enjoyed getting to meet a part of the big Blue Nation he hadn’t encountered before.
“It’s great when you’re walking around town and you see somebody with UK on and they see you as a football player or just an athlete,” he said. “They get to wear the UK just like you’re wearing it, but they see you as just a little bit different. It’s great that you can come out as a regular day and just play basketball, but since I’m a UK football player it just made a bunch of guys’ day. Actually, I had a great time on a Sunday instead of just sitting around waiting for Walking Dead.”
Jones found the experience humbling.
“I know (the Special Olympics athletes) are excited,” he said, “but just to see what those guys go through on a daily basis and to be able come out here and smile and laugh and enjoy themselves, it’s a very humbling experience for us and we’re tickled that they’re glad we’re here.”
Jones was asked by one of the media members who came out to cover the appearance what it was like to be looked up to as heroes by the Special Olympics athletes, but he wasn’t so sure who was looking up to whom.
“It was feeling more like celebrities when we walked in,” Jones said. “But these guys are the real heroes. The stuff they go through every day and just come out here and live their life the way they do? They’re the real heroes.”
|Daron Blaylock poses for a picture with members of the Lexington Defenders
during the autograph session.
The group of UK players that came out was a mix of older faces and newcomers. In fact, even in a group that included quarterback Jalen Whitlow, with many of the Special Olympics athletes being pro wrestling fans, Steve Borden -- a junior college transfer tight end who hasn’t played yet for Kentucky, but whose father is former professional wrestling champion Sting – may have been the most popular guy in the building.
The event came together after Jones and first-year Lexington Wildcats head coach Dave Wickstrom met in a Special Education class.
“We are in a class together learning how to make technology help people with disabilities,” Wickstrom said. “We were talking one day and I said, ‘hey, why don’t you come out to practice?’ He said, ‘yeah, I’ll get some guys.’ I had no idea it was going to turn out to be this much.”
Once the wheels were set in motion, Jones had no problem finding takers among his teammates.
“It took one text message,” Johnson said. “It was a group message Cody sent out to a bunch of guys and you could just see everybody responding. Everybody was saying ‘I’m in, I’m in, I’m in.’ For a group of guys to be in just off one guy coming and telling us to do something new and we just bought in and came out and played and had a great time today.”
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And it was a fully player-driven effort.
“We’re really close (as a team),” Jones explained. “We really are like a family. There weren’t any coaches involved. They didn’t send a mass message. I started texting some guys and it got sent out and everybody was willing to come – no legs or arms pulled.”
The turnout impressed Wickstrom.
“I think Cody just being able to send out one text (and get this response) just speaks to the character of the UK team and how much they want to be involved in the community and give back to people who have been kind of marginalized their whole lives,” Wickstrom said.
And while the scrimmages and meeting meant a lot to the UK players, it obviously left an impression on the two Special Olympics teams.
Lexington Wildcats player and Special Olympics Global Messenger Andrew Browning said, “This is a special day for me and my teammates.”
And while this was the first meeting between the UK Wildcats and the Special Olympics teams, it may well not be the last. During the questions and answer session, the football team was asked if it had ever been out to a Special Olympics game.
The response came from the team?
“We’ve never been invited.”
It was an oversight the Lexington Defenders and Wildcats seemed intent on correcting.
The UK football players who took part in the scrimmages and meeting were: Matthew Adolph, Jordan Aumiller, Daron Blaylock, Steve Borden, Tyler Davenport, Alvin Davis, Max Godby, Tristian Johnson, Cody Jones, AJ Legree, Cody Lewis, Kevin Mitchell, Tyler Robinson, Austin Sheehan, Jalen Whitlow and Jeff Witthuhn.
The Lexington Wildcats will be trying to defend their Special Olympics 3A State Championship March 9-10 at the 2013 Special Olympics Kentucky State Basketball Tournament at Hoops in Louisville.