When University of Florida Special Olympics Founder Jake Dube revealed the uniforms for UF’s newest flag football team, the athletes could not contain their excitement.
“Seeing the joy on their faces when I unveiled the new uniform for them, the orange and blue uniform – they were just so excited to have their own jerseys,” he said. “They were jumping up and down. They were screaming. They were running around. It was mayhem.”
The UF Special Olympics College Unified Gators played their first tournament Saturday and Sunday at the Swamp Bowl held on the university’s campus. The athletes proudly wore their bronze medals after placing third in the competition.
Dube, who founded the team, said this is the first time UF has ever had a Special Olympics team.
The eight registered athletes on the team representing UF come from the Sidney Lanier Center, which serves students with special-needs ages 3 to 22. Dube said that in order to have the new team approved, he had to contact the Special Olympics state office.
He started the process in March and worked closely with Project UNIFY, which helps students without disabilities partner with students with special-needs through sports.
After months of paperwork, he was finally able to get a team together. He found a UF student who was willing to coach the team and also reached out to members of his fraternity, Delta Chi, to serve as unified partners who play the games with the athletes.
Dube, a 20-year-old finance sophomore, said the biggest challenge was finding a way to make sure the athletes had physical exams done to ensure there were no health concerns that could impede them from playing.
“Getting a doctor to them was one of the hardest things, but Sidney Lanier did a great job in allowing myself and the coach to have a doctor come into the school to do the exams,” he said.
Dube also said the university was very welcoming and eager to have the team established. He hopes to have a basketball team established once football season is over.
Dube played baseball and basketball in high school and also swam and ran cross-country. He was involved in Special Olympics then and said he wanted to create a team at UF after seeing that the university was lacking one.
“I wanted for them to have the opportunities that I had to play in high school, and I feel like everybody should have the chance to play sports,” he said.
Charles Joseph Lewandowski, a food and resource economics senior and a unified partner who works with the athletes, has a special connection to the cause.
His cousin Ben was diagnosed with autism at an early age, and after spending the summer with him, Lewandowski was inspired to volunteer with students with special-needs.
He said he has been most surprised by the lack of volunteers willing to work with people with special needs.
“It’s important for people to get involved in organizations that we don’t always see,” he said. “Everybody knows about things like Dance Marathon, but there are a lot more organizations that could use our help.”
Michael Bennett, a 21-year-old finance senior, is also a unified partner and, like Dube, was involved with Special Olympics in high school. However, he said he has enjoyed his experience with the UF team more because he is older and it means a lot more to him now.
“It’s fun playing the sport in general, but my favorite part was seeing how happy they were, because you can tell they don’t get to do this often. Their parents would come up to us afterward to thank us, and you could tell they were so grateful,” he said.
The team’s next tournament will be a state competition held in Orlando at the ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex. The athletes will have transportation and hotel accommodations paid for by the state.
Teams from schools all over Florida are expected to participate, including the University of Miami, Florida State University and Florida International University. The UF team will have a rivalry game against FSU’s Special Olympics team near the end of the season in November.
Dube said the team practices once a week, and the athletes are excited to continue training. However, the most important part is that they enjoy themselves.
“We like to win,” he said, “but our team is based on our athletes having the most fun possible.”