For many, Tuesday, Nov. 5, was an ordinary day at One Bills Drive.
While it was a scheduled day off for the players, that didn't stop several Bills from using their time for an extra special cause. As dozens of young athletes made their way to the ADPRO Sports Training Center for a Special Olympics Unified Sports flag football clinic, they had no idea that some of their very own sports heroes would be joining them for a night that they'd remember forever.
On-site to help the athletes go through six different activity stations, were Bills players such as Mitch Morse, Lorenzo Alexander, Corey Bojorquez, Vincent Taylor, Reid Ferguson, Victor Salako and Eddie Yarbrough. An evening that was filled with smiles, laughter and heartwarming interactions, was also one that allowed the Bills to bond with the youth in a unique way.
A Unified Sports event, the athletes who attended are spearheading what Special Olympics New York's Director of Development, Erica Raepple calls the "inclusion revolution."
"We had three different schools [present] – three of the schools that actually started Unified," said Raepple. "So, three of the six that started Unified three years ago – Starpoint, Cheektowaga and Iroquois – and they all came out with Unified students. Then we also brought some of our traditional Special Olympic athletes, who are trying to get into schools and bring that Unified program to their schools. So, it's an all-encompassing event that we had today because we brought not only Special Olympic athletes and their partners together, but we brought them with the Buffalo Bills and we really practiced and showed that inclusion that Special Olympics is fighting for."
A great cause, Special Olympics is one near to the heart for Morse and Yarbrough.
"This is something that really resonates with me, hits home – the special needs community…We're stewards of the community," said Morse whose brother Robbie suffered a traumatic brain injury when he was an infant. "The community doesn't owe us anything. We owe so much to the community for giving us the opportunity to play here and any chance we get, it's not only our privilege, it's our duty to give back.
Scroll through to view the top photos as Bills players hosted a unified flag football clinic with Special Olympics New York in the ADPRO Sports Training Center on Tuesday, Nov. 11.
"It's so pure [to see the smiles on the kids' faces]. It also takes you back [and makes you wonder], when did we lose just having fun [and] being in the moment? So, it definitely [brings you back]."
For Yarbrough, an Aurora, Colorado native, Unified Sports has been a major part of his life for the last decade. The defensive end even started a Special Olympics Unified Sports program at Grandview High School when he was a student there.
"I've been doing this since 2009," he said. "Sports has such an amazing way of bringing people together and to be able to go across so many boundaries, borders and red tape in regard to demographics… sports can bring all that together. And it's important that we keep using this as a vehicle to transport fun and get rid of that stigma of, oh, well this person is different than me, I can't really interact with them. Sports has a way of being able to unify..."
For the athletes, the night provided an opportunity to do what they love to do, in a new and exciting environment.
"Our athletes absolutely love the Bills," said Raepple. "Even on regular school days, everybody's decked out in Bills gear and just to have that compassion and to have that comradery with the Buffalo Bills players [is awesome]. Them coming out and just being one-on-one [with the kids], being their basic form --- they were being athletes together – and that's what we really preach at Special Olympics. [We preach] that they are not people with intellectual disabilities, they're athletes and that's how they need to be treated and that's exactly how the Buffalo Bills treated them today."
Expanding across the state, Unified Sports is another way to bring an already close-knit Western New York Community, closer together.
"We have the best fans in the stands," said Raepple. "Our parents are so supportive, and unifying's been around for three years and just to see the community build onto Unified, has been fantastic. Western New York is in the forefront of Unified Sports right now and we are growing at a very fast rate and it's super exciting, but we also need to show that inclusion. We need to get people on board to see what we're all about. Come out to an event, come to a unified event, come to a regular Special Olympics event and see how amazing our athletes are."
"I think what people don't recognize is, that Unified Sports in New York state are right up there with varsity, JV, modified, Unified," elaborated Renee Snyder, vice president of development at Special Olympics New York. "So, they're true interscholastic sports with students with and without disabilities playing on the same court, the same field, the same bowling alley. So, that piece is unlike anything else that exists right now in interscholastic sports."
In addition to the event at the ADPRO Sports Training Center, Special Olympics New York holds a number of activities for athletes throughout the year. Coming up on March 21, 2020, the organization will hold a 6-on-6 flag football tournament at New Era Field called the "Buffalo Snow Bowl." Proceeds raised from the event will go to fund programs, that are free of charge, for the athletes.
"Everything that we do, we want to include people," said Raepple. "We want to include them in sports because sports are so powerful and so moving."