February 28, 2014

Knights, Catholic Athletes for Christ sponsor football combine for Special Olympians

Special Olympian Bradley Johnson of Whiteland completes a jump in the broad jump portion of a National Football League-like combine event for athletes with developmental disabilities on Feb. 22 at the Indianapolis Colts practice facility in Indianapolis. Assisting him are, from left, former Indianapolis Colt Jim Sorgi, a member of St. Susanna Parish in Plainfield; and two members of the Knights of Columbus, Dennis Gochoel, a member of St. Simon the Apostle Parish in Indianapolis; and Pat Rondinella, a member of St. Malachy Parish in Brownsburg. (Photo by Sean Gallagher)

Special Olympian Bradley Johnson of Whiteland completes a jump in the broad jump portion of a National Football League-like combine event for athletes with developmental disabilities on Feb. 22 at the Indianapolis Colts practice facility in Indianapolis. Assisting him are, from left, former Indianapolis Colt Jim Sorgi, a member of St. Susanna Parish in Plainfield; and two members of the Knights of Columbus, Dennis Gochoel, a member of St. Simon the Apostle Parish in Indianapolis; and Pat Rondinella, a member of St. Malachy Parish in Brownsburg. (Photo by Sean Gallagher)

By Sean Gallagher

Jerry Moore took the handoff and ran hard with the football to his left, flashing into the end zone ahead of chasing defensive players.

Celebrating a two-point conversion after his team had scored a touchdown, Jerry spiked the football and did a joyous end zone dance.

That moment capped a fun-filled morning on Feb. 22 for Special Olympics athletes from across central Indiana at the Indianapolis Colts practice facility in Indianapolis. (See a related photo gallery)

“It was really exciting for all the athletes and the parents to see this,” said Jerry, a Special Olympics athlete from Cicero, Ind. “This has just been a great experience. I hope that they do this again.”

The athletes participated in the same kind of drills that were taking place that same weekend at Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis where hundreds of the country’s top college football players showed off their talents during the annual National Football League (NFL) Scouting Combine. (See a related news story)

Coaches and officials from all 32 NFL teams gather at the event to measure the athletic skills of up-and-coming football players and to interview them prior to the NFL draft, which will begin on May 8.

Fewer eyes watched the drills and flag football game that took place at the Colts practice facility.

But that didn’t matter to the Special Olympians, who had fun running the 40-yard dash and doing the broad jump and other combine-like drills.

The event was co-sponsored by Catholic Athletes for Christ and the Knights of Columbus.

Founded in the 1960s by Eunice Kennedy Shriver, Special Olympics is the world’s largest sports organization for people with developmental disabilities.

Sporting a No. 12 Andrew Luck Colts jersey, Special Olympian Bradley Johnson of Whiteland was happy to play football on the Colts’ practice field.

“It’s cool. I’m a huge Colts fan,” Bradley said. “I’d like to see them win the Super Bowl.”

But he also had in mind the real purpose behind the event.

“It’s fun,” Bradley said. “Special Olympics is all about having fun.”

Quite a contrast from the Combine at Lucas Oil Stadium, where athletes displayed their talents in hopes of being drafted and possibly earning millions of dollars.

Former Indianapolis Colt backup quarterback Jim Sorgi said the Special Olympics combine was just as important as the NFL Combine.

“They’re both the same in my eyes,” said Sorgi, a member of St. Susanna Parish in Plainfield. “You’ve got the elite athletes who are going out and trying to make a living at the Combine downtown. And you have athletes here who just want to go out and have fun. That’s what it’s all about.”

Four former Colts players and members of the football team at Brebeuf Jesuit Preparatory School in Indianapolis helped the Special Olympians in their drills and flag football game.

Sorgi, a former backup to Peyton Manning who is now the color commentator for the radio broadcasts of Colts games, said he is grateful to have made it to the NFL, so that now he can “be on a stage where I can help those who are less fortunate go out and have fun doing the exact same things that I did.”

Lawrence Fuhr, state deputy for the Knights of Columbus and a member of St. Joseph Parish in Corydon, attended the event and was pleased with the excitement of the Special Olympians.

“The kids come in and look at this and their eyes light up. It’s terrific,” said Fuhr. “They get the feeling of what the pros do when they come out on the football field.”

Ray McKenna, president and founder of Catholic Athletes for Christ, an Arlington, Va.-based organization that seeks to spread the Gospel in and through athletics, liked how the Special Olympics athletes were getting some attention on such a big weekend for the NFL.

“The Combine will be televised on the NFL Network and ESPN,” McKenna said. “The best, strongest, most gifted college athletes will be there. We think it’s a nice complement to have Special Olympics kids who have been faced with challenges also competing, and to have them highlighted and recognized and have NFL players coaching and encouraging them.”

Also on hand for the event was Special Olympics Indiana chief executive officer Michael Furnish. He appreciated the support that his organization receives from the Knights of Columbus and how their principles coincide.

“The Knights of Columbus have a values system that mirrors that of Special Olympics in believing that each person has something to contribute, no matter how great or how modest your skill or resources may be,” Furnish said. “It puts us on the same side of the fence on this conversation.”

Watching the drills and the game was Norbertine Father James Baraniak, who has served as the Catholic chaplain of the Green Bay Packers for the past 17 years.

He appreciated how Catholic beliefs about the dignity of each human person served as the foundation of the Special Olympics combine and flag football game.

“Everybody has something to deposit toward the common good,” said Father James. “And these young people are certainly doing that in very beautiful ways.” †

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