To many there is nothing greater than to win a state championship. Hundred-year-old stories still echo through sacred halls about championship teams gone by. Grown men turning gray still cling to their rings, as rites of passage to a hallowed chamber few will experience.
Saturday, the Cowboys brought another Utah State Championship home to Grantsville, fire truck and all. Grantsville’s Unified Soccer Team is the 2014 Utah State Champion in Division 2. It doesn’t get any better. Or does it?
The Utah High School Activities Association and Special Olympics Utah joined forces to initiate the Unified Soccer Program, ensuring access to extracurricular sports to students with disabilities, a recommendation from the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights in January, 2013. It has been pointed out that intellectually disabled students are five times more likely to be employed after high school if they actively participate in Special Olympics activities. The life skills learned by athletic competition empowers them.
In my experience, if young and old can participate in something worthwhile they feel valued and validated. Those feelings of competency and accomplishment carry on in life and stimulate success elsewhere. I believe it provides the will and determination to fight life’s battles and in the end prolong life.
While winning is great, it is not the end. Participation and team membership is the real determining factor. When each team cheers on the other, in victory and defeat, as was the case here, that’s when you know these kids understand something we have been trying to learn for centuries. This is what pure sport is meant to be.
And thankfully, through grants, general operating support from Special Olympics International and the U.S. Department of Education, and the sacrifices of head coaches who care, 13 schools got to participate in Unified Soccer’s inaugural season. Divided into three divisions, teams from the Utah School for the Deaf and the Blind, Skyline, Bingham, Wasatch, Hillcrest, Grantsville, Mountain Crest, Lone Peak, Brighton, Alta, Spanish Fork, Jordan and Sky View all ventured into the unknown and lived a dream to belong to something bigger than themselves.
The team’s makeup is the real secret which promotes inclusion and tolerance. Each school sends five players out on the field. The first three athletes are intellectually disabled students while the last two athletes are not. These players are called “Partners” and help coach their peers throughout the season both in practice and in games. The interaction between those with disabilities and those without is the magic in all this. Pat Ciervo, Grantsville’s head coach, lived it.
“This is the best program and team I have ever been involved with” he said. “Unified athletics regardless of sport, provide disabled athletes a chance to participate in a mainstream and sanctioned high school competition. The wins and losses mean nothing. It is the opportunity to compete, the sense of personal accomplishment, the camaraderie and inclusion that provided the impetus to the program and the athlete’s sense of worth. It was just incredible.”
When we start to cross boundaries and empathize with others who may be different from us, toleration turns to understanding, segregation to inclusion and fear to compassion. Grantsville’s goalkeeper, Jarron Strah, put it this way, “I love this team!”
Coach Ciervo does too. “I’ve never had better chemistry on a team before. It was just plain fun.” Dan Gosling was never the type to express himself much, but that is different now after inducing some payback on coach Ciervo. While coach was watching the team practice, a well-kicked soccer ball from a distance met his backside. Turning around he discovered Gosling taking full responsibility, chastising the coach for calling him by his brother Joe’s name. Just one of the many miracles Ciervo witnessed this season.
After eight games, Grantsville High School, an innovator at inclusion and mainstreaming all students through its halls of opportunities, brought home a Unified Soccer State Championship. Running onto the field for the championship game the “Partners” were nervous and uptight. Their teammate athletes came to their aid and loosened them up, teaching them it was about the fun of playing the game and not the game itself. Who really learned from who?
The state championship banner will soon be raised in Grantsville High’s gymnasium. Time will pass and we may or may not forget this Unified Soccer Team. But as Coach Ciervo so simply told them, “You all played awesome this year. Today is a day you will remember for the rest of your lives.” And surely they will.
You see this all hits pretty close to home for me. My nephew, Brenden Krogh, is a member of this Grantsville championship team. The effect it’s made in his life and for his family has been remarkable. Brenden is a state champion now, something I and many others will never experience. What’s interesting is from Brenden’s point of view it isn’t about being a state champion. It’s all about just being accepted, being part of a team, playing the game with his friends and having a great time doing it. I guess we all have something to learn. I’ll see you from the sidelines.