Schuylkill County Special Olympics completes inaugural flag football season

Dec. 29—The Schuylkill County Special Olympics program did not hold back for its inaugural flag football season this year, inviting a star-studded lineup of guests, such as a former Philadelphia Eagles wide receiver, the daughter of an iconic sports figure and a group of Disney characters.

With help from the community, three public figures — Freddie Mitchell, Khaliah Ali and Travis Blankenhorn — and other guests participated in events with the flag football team, which is new to the Schuylkill County program.

Those appearances helped raise awareness for the Special Olympics and have contributed to the success of the football team, which, by all accounts, had a remarkable debut season.

Through a 10-week season that ran from mid-September to the end of November, the flag football athletes got to compete against opponents such as the Penn State Schuylkill men's basketball team, state police troopers and fellow Special Olympics players.

They also had the opportunity to meet the three aforementioned celebrities, along with a special visit from Disney characters.

"It's been magical," said Mark Mamrosh, Special Olympics sports leader.

The flag football team is composed of about 20 athletes from bocce ball, swimming, basketball and other teams.

On Sept. 17, former wideout Mitchell attended the team's first-ever game, which was followed by a meet-and-greet session at Fighter's Heaven, Muhammad Ali's former training camp near Deer Lake.

That appearance was followed by a visit on Oct. 1 from Khaliah Ali, daughter of the legendary boxer, and another visit on Oct. 22 from second baseman Blankenhorn, who now is with the Washington Nationals organization.

During the penultimate game of the season on Nov. 19, the Special Olympics hosted an event called "Magical Moments" consisting of appearances from costumed characters, like Mickey and Minnie Mouse; Mirabel from "Encanto"; Anna and Elsa from the "Frozen" movies; Princess Jasmine from "Aladdin"; and Buzz Lightyear from "Toy Story."

Despite the cold weather, hundreds of children and their families turned out to meet the characters.

The characters were provided by Minnie's Magical Moments, a children's party service based in New Jersey.

"Being in Schuylkill County, a lot of kids wouldn't have the opportunity to live that," Mamrosh said. "They were absolutely amazing."

Raising awareness

Overall, Mamrosh said, the flag football program was a resounding success, with head coach Jordan Green serving as the anchor for all of the initiatives and organizations involved in the proceedings.

"Jordan always sets the bar really high, and he always tries to jump over the bar," Mamrosh said.

He noted that the focus of the season was on creating "unified" events, or games where the flag football athletes played against non-Special Olympics opponents.

As it turned out, the athletes faced a diverse lineup of opponents spanning several interests and occupations, including local high school and Penn State Schuylkill students; employees from Ronnie C. Folk Paving Inc.; state police troopers from the Frackville station of Troop L; and members of Mountain Road Jiu-Jitsu, a martial arts club based in Pottsville.

Mamrosh said he looked forward to making weekly visits to Penn State Schuylkill's auxiliary soccer field, where the flag football games were played.

Each event, he said, drew a different crowd based on the people or organizations involved.

"When you see new faces, you're making changes," he said. "That is exactly why we do it. ... We're bringing awareness to these kids."

One highlight of the season for Team Schuylkill was its performance on Nov. 5 at the yearly Fall Fest, a regional competition at Villanova University that brought together several Special Olympics programs.

Despite being the only first-year program represented at the event, the Schuylkill County flag football team exceeded everyone's expectations and finished second out of six teams.

"This was no easy feat as Team Schuylkill flag football did not exist until this summer," Green said. "The other teams had years of experience, so it truly is a testament to the dedication and hard work for all those involved."

Upcoming initiatives

The Schuylkill County Special Olympics, part of the Greater Lehigh Valley-Pocono Region branch of Special Olympics Pennsylvania, offers a year-round variety of programs for sports such as basketball, swimming, bocce ball, softball and bowling.

The program is currently in the midst of its basketball season, which kicked off Dec. 21 with a game against the Nativity BVM Hilltoppers.

Like the flag football team, the basketball program also features a unified schedule, with opponents ranging from Mountain Road Jiu-Jitsu to local high school students and state troopers.

At the team's Jan. 18 game against Pottsville Area School District, the athletes will receive a special visit from Philadelphia 76ers announcer Matt Cord.

Cord, who has been with the 76ers for 26 years, will introduce each athlete from Team Schuylkill as they step out onto the court at Martz Hall.

From there, he will undertake the same duties he fulfills at every 76ers home game — delivering the play-by-play action of the game in his signature style.

Cord is good friends with Green and his family, who have attended many 76ers games over the years.

When contacted by Green about participating in the Special Olympics, Cord couldn't pass up the opportunity.

"I'm hoping that the kids have fun," Cord said.

Although he has visited Pottsville before, the event will be his first engagement with the Schuylkill County division of the Special Olympics.

"I'm excited to get out there and help out with the kids," Cord said. "Hopefully, we can make it a yearly thing."

Another event the Special Olympics program will take part in is the upcoming American Xcellence Wrestling, or AXW, an expansive showcase that will feature several professional wrestlers.

AXW is slated for 6 p.m. Jan. 7 at the Hamburg Field House in Hamburg.

"Our kids will be part of the festivities," Mamrosh said. "They will meet the wrestlers and walk down with them in the aisle."

For next year's flag football season, Mamrosh said, the program will continue to invite public figures and "pillars" to the community.

Although no details have yet been announced, Mamrosh said, the program will feature another lineup of exciting events and initiatives. He added that "the sky's the limit" with Green at the helm.

"I look forward to many more events and many more memories," Mamrosh said. "That's what life's about — creating memories for these kids."

Anyone interested in volunteering for the Schuylkill County Special Olympics or registering an athlete can contact Mamrosh at schuylkillsportsleadersopa@gmail.com or visit specialolympicspa.org.

For the full list of events, visit the Schuylkill County Special Olympics Facebook page.

Contact the writer: hlee@republicanherald.com; 570-628-6085