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It all started as an excuse to avoid physical education. I scampered around my high school on the first day of 11th grade searching for my golf coach, Mr. Delgrego, for he had a solution to almost anything. As I approached him and asked for an exemption, he quickly offered a plea bargain of sorts; in order for me to skip out on gym for the first semester, I would help him coach the Unified Soccer team. Being an impulsive 15 year old, with an underdeveloped frontal lobe and an overdeveloped habit of seeking immediate gratification, I accepted and then asked him, “Where is my signing bonus?” He smirked and replied; “I will see you tomorrow.”
On the walk back to class, I recalled what had just occurred, overcome with joy that I did not have to take junior gym. It is not that I am unathletic; I serve as captain for both the varsity hockey and golf teams, but the everyday hassle of getting changed in a filthy locker room during my off season was not a priority. At lunch I bragged of what I just accomplished to all my friends, and at the exact same time, we looked at each other, dumbfounded. The dumbfounded look was followed by the biggest jinx in history, as we all asked, “What is Unified Soccer?”
I would soon find out. The first search result for “Unified Sports” on Google reads, “Special Olympics: Unified Sports brings people together.” My mind began to race. I clearly had no idea what I had gotten myself into, and I knew for a fact there was no way out of this one. I could not let Coach Delgrego down, but on the other hand I knew nothing about working with the mentally handicapped, never mind teaching them how to play a sport. I started to rethink my decision, and immediately my father’s voice rang in my head, “Say what you mean, and mean what you say.” My father emphasizes that my family and I do as we say we will.
The next day, I began my job as a coach, but I did not do very well. I was extremely shy, mainly due to the fact that I had no idea how to interact with players that were different from the kids I knew. I scanned the room in a desperate attempt to find something, anything, that would give me a nudge forward. Sure enough, it was standing in front of me. Cameron, a large African-American boy who was one of the players, had a t-shirt on and in bold script it read the Special Olympics’ motto: “Let me win. But if I cannot win, let me be brave in the attempt.” Those last words inspired me, and it was as if the students had found a new coach. I began to interact with the students better than ever, cracking jokes and telling stories, learning more about each one of them every minute that passed. Practices came and went and before I knew it, the season was coming to an end, and the Unified Soccer Tournament was approaching.
It was a beautiful fall day, the kind with a gentle breeze that tickled your nose when it passed. Leaves were changing colors and dropping gracefully from their branches. Coach Delgrego and I boarded the bus to the tournament along with the players. We sang, talked, and joked around all the way there. The feeling in the air was unprecedented to me, I felt as if I was important to them. Every time I or someone else spoke, they listened more attentively than anyone I have ever been in a conversation with. When we arrived we headed to the check-in table to receive our schedule. As I looked it over, it was unlike any hockey or golf tournament I have ever competed in. There were no scorekeepers, no divisions, and no championship. But what there were, were smiles. Everywhere there were smiles. Smiles so wide, if you connected them all, they would probably stretch to the moon and back. However, the thought of how there was no such thing as a score to a game was still staggering to my mind. Why would they still play? What is the objective? Then it all clicked, an epiphany. Everything I had observed for the past two months working with my new friends made sense. Cameron and the gang played for the thrill of it. Everything they did was so honest, so out in the open. There were no hiding emotions with them, they could easily sense when you were having a bad day. We played our four games, scored goals, and our opponents scored on us. We cheered, shook hands, exchanged hugs and smiles. At the conclusion of the tournament, we all received t-shirts and enjoyed a few slices of pizza with the other teams; Unified Sports most certainly brings people together. Nobody won or lost, that is probably why the smiles were still overpowering. Maybe professional athletes should follow suit.
Since I began working with Coach D’s students, there is no such thing as socially awkward for me anymore. I have been in a conversation touching upon just about everything. Nevertheless, in what began as an attempt to ditch 11th grade physical education, I ended up embarking on a new course that taught me much more than I ever planned to learning. The little things in life are in fact appreciated, and that no act goes unnoticed. When working with students not as fortunate as oneself, one’s values immediately are put into perspective. Now I am sure to show that I am grateful for all that I have. All I have learned through my experience as a Unified Soccer coach certainly had an impact on me, and I plan to carry my knowledge with me in the future, wherever that path may lead. After this experience, teaching children is a possibility for my future. Regardless, I have learned not to worry about the score, just to enjoy playing the game.