Special-needs football program ready for kickoff

SUWANEE - Nick Casey goes to the Falcons game every Sunday with his dad.

But now, the 11-year-old with special needs can don his own jersey.

Complete with tailgating, a fledgling flag football program will begin Sept. 10 for special-needs kids in Gwinnett.

"At the bottom line, it's about kids having fun," said Shari Donatell, the treasurer of the association and wife of Falcons defensive coordinator Ed Donatell. "A lot of the kids like to watch football with their dads. It's good to do it without being too rough."

Donatell and others were inspired by an ESPN program about a special-needs program in New York as well as the work at Bay Creek Park in the Grayson area, where a special-needs baseball park opened a couple of years ago.

They are calling the program INSPIRE - Intramural Sports that Promote Inclusion, Respect and Excellence.

So far, 16 kids from ages 5 to 18 have signed up for football, and another six signed up to be cheerleaders.

Wayne Schmitz's daughter, Kristina, played in the baseball league at Bay Creek, but now she wants to lead the cheerleaders at football.

"I think it meant a lot for Kristina," said Schmitz, who is the program director. "She has an opportunity now to be more directly involved."

Gwinnett's special-needs sports league began about 10 years ago, when community volunteers and parents organized the baseball team.

Founder Cathy Smith said the organization began slow, like Peachtree Ridge's, but it blossomed after Bay Creek Park opened three years ago.

Now, about 200 kids play baseball each season, and at nearby Grayson First Baptist Church, 150 players and 40 cheerleaders participate in basketball.

"It gives our higher-functioning kids a means to play competitive sports, and for our lower-functioning ones, it's a way to interact with other kids in a way they wouldn't be able to otherwise, and it's the same for the parents," she said.

Smith said she expects the Peachtree Ridge program to grow even quicker because of the need for northern Gwinnett kids to have an athletic outlet closer to home.

County officials envisioned Peachtree Ridge Park as the center for special-needs sports north of Interstate 85, since Bay Creek is already serving the southern community.

In addition to the regular baseball fields, trails and tennis courts, plans include a special-needs baseball field, with an extra-large outfield that can be reconfigured for football and soccer. And the association is looking for donors to build a specially equipped playground.

Until the field is ready, which could be around the start of baseball season 2008, the kids will play at Peachtree Ridge High School's practice field.

Athletes from the 17 other football and cheerleading teams at the association have offered to help out at games, where the special-needs kids are paired with volunteers who show them how to play.

"I think this is going to make for a softer, gentler park," Donatell said of the involvement of competitive players with the more relaxed special needs team.

Schmitz even decided to give everyone the "game-day experience" - starting out Sundays with a tailgate and opening and closing ceremonies.

Derrick Hutchens, a special education teacher at Hull Middle School, said his kids play flag football during physical education classes and they would love to be more active outside of school.

"We needed to start something here for the kids," said Hutchens, who plans to coach or volunteer. "It's not about winning. Everybody's going to score. Everybody's going to have fun."

To sign up for the special needs team, volunteer or donate money, go to the Web site www.pryaa.com or

e-mail Schmitz at specialneeds@pryaa.com.

For information about the Bay Creek programs, e-mail gaaspecialneeds@bellsouth.net. Basketball sign-ups will be held from 10 a.m. to noon Sept. 9 at the Grayson area park.