Corey Morgan of the Louisville Flyers flag football team doesn’t shy away from the bright lights of competition.
“That is where I shine,” he said. “When I shine, I’m never stopping, like no one else before.”
Morgan, 23, will get his chance to shine next week when he and the Flyers head to Princeton, New Jersey, to compete in the Special Olympic 2014 USA Games.
The Louisville Flyers are the first Special Olympic flag football team from Kentucky in history to be invited to the national championship.
They are confident, but their optimism is warranted. The Flyers won back-to-back Kentucky state Special Olympic championships in 2012 and 2013.
They’ve lost only two games this season, including the state championship last weekend.
The Flyers’ history of success prompted the the national tournament’s organizers to nominate them to compete in next week’s games, said head coach Danny Lane.
The Flyers aren’t necessarily state champions this year—but they aren’t underdogs either, said player Ryland Dake, 26.
“We’ve won,” he said. “And we haven’t slowed down yet.”
Some players are diagnosed as autistic; others have unspecified intellectual disabilities. For his teammates, Corey Morgan, the only Flyer with Down syndrome, is the team’s core.
“I will go out of control and make sure I get the victory whenever I need to,” he said. “Sometimes I feel like a monster and I have to unleash the monster in my sports. The monster is my passion.”
The players, who range in age from 18 to 46, are dedicated to memorizing playbooks, executing plays and encouraging their teammates like seasoned veterans. When they make a mistake, the coaches don’t hesitate to let them know.
But the coaches also work to instill confidence and life-skills into the players.
As the team huddled after one of their last practices in Louisville, assistant coach Tom Hoffman told the players “don’t let anyone tell you ‘you can’t do anything, you can do anything you put your mind to.’”
The team’s eldest player, James Brown, said the Flyers’ success comes from hard work and their ability to play as a team.
“One person can’t do it by themselves,” he said.
Many of the players are multi-sport athletes. One of the star defensive players on the Flyers, Timothy Kornrumpf, 23, was a member of the gold medal winning four-by-100 relay team in the 2010 U.S. Special Olympic Games in Lincoln, Nebraska.
Lane said he never expected he would be the head coach of a Special Olympics flag football team or, much less, take the first Special Olympic team from Kentucky to a national championship.
His start in coaching came by chance.
Lane’s two daughters have special needs. At 8-years-old they signed up to participate in the Special Olympic’s track program. When the track coach didn’t show up for practice, he “fell into it.”
That was 10 years ago.
Now, Lane is taking a team to the biggest stage to compete for the grandest prize.
“I treat all these young men like they are my sons,” he said.
Just getting a chance to go to the games, though, required some serious fundraising. Coach Lane said community support helped garner $18,000 to cover the costs of the New Jersey trip for the national tournament.
Lane said Special Olympics gives the players a chance to participate in something they enjoy and are passionate about—sports.
Without Special Olympics, they may miss out on the competitive atmosphere, he said.
“It’s really no different than any other athletic competition,” he said. “The only difference is you have athletes with intellectual disabilities playing sports.”
Lane said Special Olympic sports have three divisions. The Louisville Flyers compete in division 1-A, meaning the players exhibit mid-range functionality.
The Flyers will compete throughout the week to try to become national champions. More than 80,000 people are expected to attend and participate in the Special Olympic Games from June 14-21.
Whatever happen—win or lose—Coach Lane said the players should be proud.
“With special needs or without special needs, there are not many people that get to go to a special competition like that,” he said. “If they get up there and do something special, they will know it.”
We’ll keep track with the Flyers through the Special Olympic Games. Check back next week for updates.