A Westfield High School senior had never been involved in organized football. But when the opportunity to play for the school’s new Unified Sports flag football team presented itself, Dane Hogle jumped at the chance.
He saw the team, which combines athletes with and without intellectual disabilities, as an opportunity to connect with a varied group of students. But, more importantly, he liked the message that Unified Sports sends.
“Everyone is included,” said Hogle, who plays wide receiver for the coed team. “No matter who you are, you get to participate. I just love that.”
Westfield added football this year to a roster of Unified Sports that already included track and field (in the spring) and bocce (in the fall). John Moore, an entrepreneurship teacher at the high school and the coach of the Unified Sports teams, said that some students with intellectual disabilities were looking for more of a challenge than track and bocce could offer.
Nineteen athletes, nearly evenly divided between players with and without disabilities, are on the flag football roster. They have been practicing twice a day since Aug. 13 and had their first game Sept. 12 at Hamilton Heights High School. Unified flag football is a varsity sport and sanctioned by the IHSAA. The Unified Shamrocks have six games on their first season schedule, including two at home (a Sept. 7 home game against Brownsburg was postponed; a home game against Southport is slated for Sept. 27).
Moore, who is in his fourth year of teaching and came to Westfield with a background in coaching and on the board of directors for Hamilton County Special Olympics, is pleased with how the flag football team has progressed so far.
“It’s been great. We’ve had a lot of buy-in,” Moore said. “The team is like a family. We are supporting each other.”
Unified flag football is played on a smaller field (40 yards long between end zones by 25 yards wide, compared to 100 yards long by 53.3 yards wide in traditional American football) and with fewer players (five on a side compared to 11). Players don’t wear helmets or pads. Rules are in place to limit physical contact. Blocking is not allowed, and instead of tackling, a player is “down” when one or both flags attached to a belt around their waist is removed by an opponent. An offensive formation includes a center, quarterback, running back and two wide receivers. The quarterback is prohibited from running with the ball. Unified flag football rules require three athletes (those with disabilities) and two “partner” athletes (without disabilities) be on the field.
One of those athletes is Kenny Lardio, a junior who also participates in Unified track and field and Bocce. He plays safety for the Unified Shamrocks flag football team but says, “Put me in anywhere, I’ll be the best I can be.”
Lardio waited patiently for Westfield to add flag football. The sport is growing in Indiana. Forty-four teams will participate in the IHSAA state tournament beginning Sept. 30. The state finals will be Oct. 14 at Grand Park in Westfield.
“I want to play because I have always loved the sport of football,” Lardio said. “And, yes, I am enjoying it thoroughly.”
Grace Feltz, a Westfield senior, grew up around football and said she loves the sport, but her opportunities to play were limited. A softball and club volleyball player, she saw the Westfield flag football team as an opportunity to try a new sport. Feltz, a partner athlete who plays running back and wide receiver, also saw the team as an opportunity to be a peer to students with intellectual disabilities and build relationships with them.
“It’s just a lot of fun,” Feltz said. “Yes, it’s competitive, but not to the point of getting super stressed about it.”
Both Feltz and Hogle said it was challenging at first to work with teammates with intellectual disabilities. But, Hogle said, “You start to understand what they need and how they learn.” Feltz said that once they earned their teammates’ trust, “They’re just like your best friends. I love working with them.”
Lardio said he has made friends while playing Unified sports.
“It makes me feel like I am part of a team, and that’s good for me,” he said.
That inclusivity is the point of Unified Sports. Moore takes satisfaction in helping young athletes with disabilities learn about perseverance, discipline, teamwork, friendship and discovering who they are and what they are capable of.
“There is a great sense of joy every time I work with our athletes,” Moore said. “They work extremely hard and are always upbeat while doing it.
“Throughout all our Unified Sports we preach ‘family,’ and we have built an amazing one. We love these kids. It’s truly a blessing to get to coach them.”
Bocce ball, anyone?
Twenty-six students represented Westfield High School this fall season in bocce, a Unified Sports program that combines participants with disabilities with “partner” athletes without disabilities.
A club sport at Westfield, the bocce team had two matches this season, against Carmel and Fishers. The season ended Sept. 16 with a state competition. The matches are exhibitions; no scores are kept.
Westfield offers two other Unified Sports programs, track and field in the spring, and, new this year, flag football in the fall. But bocce is more inclusive because there is less physicality involved, said John Moore, an entrepreneurship teacher and coach of the Unified Sports teams.
Moore described Bocce, which originated in Italy, as a cross between bowling and shuffleboard. The object is to roll colorful wooden balls as close as possible to a smaller, white ball (the jack). In Unified bocce, players with physical disabilities can be accommodated with the use of ramps on which they can drop their ball instead of rolling it.
“Pretty much anyone can do it,” Moore said. “We really encourage our special education students to participate in bocce.”
Kenny Lardio, a Westfield junior, participates in all three of the school’s Unified Sports offerings. Asked what he likes about playing bocce, he said, “Just love playing the game, and you can do it anywhere.”
Since scores aren’t kept in Unified bocce, the emphasis is on participation and socialization.
“It’s a great opportunity for athletes from different schools to get to know each other,” Moore said.