Prep football: ‘Everybody wins’ with Unified sports
The programs have been in development for a few years at Cloquet and Duluth East and were on display at halftime of the teams’ varsity football matchup Friday.
DULUTH — When the horn sounded for halftime of the Duluth East and Cloquet game, a different crew of athletes took the field Friday at Ordean Stadium.
The players from each team didn’t leave the field, they stayed on the sidelines as they watched Unified flag football teams take the stage underneath the Friday night lights.
Unified Sports is a Special Olympics program that partners people with intellectual disabilities and other special needs with more typical athletes. The program, founded in 2008, promotes social inclusion through sports through a simple principle, “training together and playing together is a quick path to friendship and understanding,” according to the Special Olympics website.
The game featured breakaway touchdowns from both teams in the abbreviated game, including one from Gentry Olson.
Cloquet assistant Mike Klyve was on the sidelines cheering the players like one of the Lumberjack varsity players had just broken into the end zone.
“This is great,” Klyve said. “I wish we did this at halftime of every game — this is awesome.”
Preston Latour, an athlete partner with the Cloquet Unified team, said his experience with Unified Sports has given him a chance to spend time with a group of students he might not otherwise have gotten to know.
“I’ve created a lot of long-lasting relationships with students outside of Unified,” Latour said. “I hang out with friends from Unified on weekends and it’s more about the people than it is about what we’re doing.. Everyone just enjoys what we’re doing no matter what.”
Latour was going home with his partner, Tyler Wilton, after the game to watch a movie, according to Tyler’s father, George Wilton.
“A lot of these kids can’t play regular athletics, but it gives them a chance to be on a team,” Wilton said. “They’re not necessarily the most physically gifted, but they don’t have to be to have fun. They laugh, they don’t care if they win, they don’t care if they lose. They’re having a good time.”
While the game was a major public showcase for the Unified program, the physical education classes it grew out of have been in development for several years. Both schools have added a Unified physical education class to their curriculum in recent years and are looking to expand their offerings.
Mike Doyle, a physical education teacher at Cloquet High School, had already started a Unified program at Wayzata High School, where he taught for 13 years before coming to Cloquet four years ago. When he made the move north, he spoke to Cloquet principal Steve Battaglia about the Unified program “right away,” according to Doyle. Battaglia was immediately supportive of the initiative.
“The whole idea behind Unified is bringing special education and general education students together to do things inside of school and, ideally, outside of school,” Doyle said. “COVID really put a big damper on that, but we’re starting to see things coming back now.”
Similarly, Duluth East started its program about three years ago, but it was also interrupted by the pandemic.
“We’re finally now to the point where it’s looking more and more like a Unified physical education class,” Hietala said. “The biggest piece we were missing was we didn’t have general ed students in the class mainly because of the way COVID went down.”
Cassie Letourneau, a special education teacher and Duluth East’s Unified coordinator, started the “Circle of Friends” club at Duluth East, a precursor to the Unified physical education class that brought students with special needs and general education students together for activities after school. Many special education students, especially those with greater needs, are often isolated from the general student population and even other teachers.
“I really feel like our students, when they see their friends help them in sports, it absolutely improves their quality of life,” Letourneau said. “Sometimes they’re isolated, sometimes they only see the same adults all day or the same kids. It really enriches their life, their school life is better and it also reduces instances of bullying.”
From the two programs statewide when he first established the Unified program at Wayzata, Doyle estimates there are more than 150 schools in Minnesota with a Unified program. Last spring, Cloquet, Proctor and several other schools brought Unified teams to a track meet at Duluth East, something the school plans to continue hosting annually, according to principal Danette Seboe, with other events — like bowling or bocce ball tournaments — also planned for the winter.
“These students have always been a part of East, but want to make sure they’re a part of everything we do at East,” Seboe said. “It’s incredibly fun, all the students and parents even take the day off to come watch — it’s just been a hugely positive thing.”
‘A perfect fit’
Hietala got the idea for the football game between the Unified teams from Cloquet and East started with the “Victory Day” football program started by Trenton, Michigan, teacher and football coach Aaron Segedi. Segedi, a three-time cancer survivor, was inspired to provide a gameday experience to play football or cheer for students with physical or intellectual disabilities, according to the Victory Day website.
Hietala said he first heard about a Victory Day event at Grand Rapids (Minnesota) High School and started doing some research. He had been splitting time between special education and physical education classrooms and was looking for some way to integrate activities for students with special needs and the general education population when the Unified PE class came along.
“It just was a perfect fit,” Hietala said. “It was an opportunity that I’m involved with these kids every single day — I could introduce enough to them where we could pull it off. Our kids got to have the whole gameday experience. They got their names announced during introductions, they got to stand on the sidelines with my football team and then they played their game at halftime.”
What’s more, unlike the varsity game run in conjunction with it, there were no losers in the Unified game, according to Doyle.
“This is just one of those programs where everybody wins,” Doyle said. “The general education kids win because they’ve learned so much from the special ed kids. The special education students learn so much about social kids and get all that help with all the various sports and activities. The parents win because their students are getting all of these opportunities and I win as and adaptive PE teacher because I’m getting all of this extra help in my class.”