Special Olympics Unified flag football teams from Southern California and Minnesota were treated to quite the NFL experience Sunday at Dignity Health Sports Park in Carson.
Three hours prior to the Los Angeles Chargers and Minnesota Vikings’ contest, the Unified teams squared off on the gridiron in 5-on-5 action (three athletes and two Unified partners).
Chargers Unified pulled off an exciting 18-12 win thanks to a decisive touchdown pass from Special Olympics Orange County athlete Alex Hunt in the final three minutes. The defense held on to preserve the victory in a game that featured great back-and-forth action.
“The other passes I threw were kind of lower so I had to throw it higher so the wind wouldn’t bring it down. So I just tried to throw it longer and higher,” said Alex, 26, who started with Special Olympics in 2011.
“[The game] was really fun. All their athletes are nice and very friendly.”
The Chargers Unified team also featured five other Special Olympics Southern California athletes and five officers from the Huntington Beach Police Department. The roster included Orange County athletes Sean Araque, Max Grasso, Justin Handlon, Alex Hunt, Chris Johns and Skyler Ludin; and officers Konnor Armijo, Tyler DeTrinidad, Aaron Ecsedy, Bryn Fedderson and Joseph Giles.
Prior to the game, the team had five practices spaced out from late October to early December. As of Dec. 16, the Chargers Unified team raised $3,340 in online fundraising and will continue collecting donations through the end of the year.
“It was amazing to be paired up with the athletes. It humbles us,” said officer DeTrinidad, whose game-winning catch broke a 12-12 tie.
“Minnesota came out, played aggressive and intense, and I thought it was fun. I was just thinking go fast, go deep and hopefully he sees me (on the final catch).”
Vikings Unified fielded a more traditional team made up of Special Olympics Minnesota athletes and partners. Known in Minnesota as the Rochester Flyers, the team included Special Olympics Minnesota athletes Bailey Arneson, Patrick and Sean Healy, Parker Lichtenwalter, Chaz Morris and Alex Steffl; and Unified partners Kayla Edwards, Sam Hunt, David Kochan and Doug Utecht.
The Vikings reached out to Special Olympics Minnesota and had interested teams submit an application for the chance to join them at their practice facility, which they shared and practiced on every other Monday leading up to the California trip. The Vikings sponsored the team’s visit and organized a signing day for the 10 players in October.
After exchanging handshakes, Max Grasso thanked the Vikings Unified team on behalf of SOSC and presented the team as well as Chargers staff members with autographed footballs signed by Max and his teammates. In addition, the Vikings Unified team received Huntington Beach-themed keychains on behalf of the Chargers Unified coaches.
The game was only the first half of the fun.
The teams went from competitors to guests of their NFL counterparts and watched pregame warm-ups from the sidelines later in the afternoon. Then, both teams took part in pregame festivities as the public address announcer introduced them as they sprinted out of the tunnel and onto the field prior to kickoff, lineup up on the sidelines for the national anthem and watched the opening kickoff from the field before enjoying the rest of the game in the stands.
Afterward, SOSC athletes were invited onto the field to meet Chargers tight end Hunter Henry and backup quarterback Tyrod Taylor.
Running out the tunnel! #PlayUnified #InclusionRevolution pic.twitter.com/DRWBcZ70pz
— Special Olympics Southern California (@SOSoCal) December 15, 2019
On Saturday, both teams enjoyed a day at Knott’s Scary Farm. The weekend weather was a significant upgrade from the below 10-degree temperatures for the visitors from Minnesota.
Patrick Healy, 24, who has been a Special Olympics athlete for five years, said he enjoyed the trip and opportunity to meet athletes from Southern California.
“(I like) making new friends and they were very nice,” he said. “It was really awesome! I liked it so much!”
Inside the SOSC is a blog managed by staff member Tracy McDannald. It is a more feature-style approach to looking inside what makes Special Olympics Southern California so unique, so special. It is meant to explore the people and their stories. One word at a time.