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For Christopher Dyke and His Unified Flag Football Team, the USA Games Were an Experience of a Lifetime

Christopher Dyke has a knack for knowing where to be at any given time on the flag football field. Playing a variety of positions, the 21-year-old says he enjoys wide receiver the most, but he also shines on the defensive side of the ball. Using hand signals, he communicates with his Special Olympics Arizona coaches on the sidelines, and they say his football IQ is second to none. Dyke just happens to be hearing impaired and oftentimes uses his mom as an interpreter.

Arizona’s Unified flag football team usually does not allow players younger than 14 years old to play, but Dyke was an exception. He started playing when he was around 12 years old. “From day one, Chris showed no fear and was able to hold his own playing against older teens and even adults,” said Lucas Parker, a Special Olympics Arizona coach. “And over the last 10 years or so, Chris has just continued to improve, age, and mature into a really good, well-rounded player with a football IQ that is off the charts. Chris has a natural feel for the game and is often putting teammates in the right place, making audibles on offense, making defensive adjustments on the fly.”

Two Special Olympics athletes are on a flag football field.
Chris Dyke (right) has an exceptionally high football IQ and has emerged as a leader on his Unified flag football team.

So, when it came time for tryouts for the 2022 Special Olympics USA Games, which were June 5–12 in Orlando, nobody deserved an opportunity more than Dyke. “I was all excited when I was told I got picked for the USA Games. I want to support my team and do my best,” Dyke said in the weeks before the event.

During the first day of competition at the USA Games, Dyke recorded a safety and a touchdown, immediately displaying his talents. And while one might think it may be hard for him to communicate on the field, it’s simply not the case. “Even with our limited ability to communicate with him because nobody else on the team is fluent in [American Sign Language], Chris is able to make all of this happen on the field because his adaptive skills are so strong,” Parker said.

Debra Dyke, Dyke’s mother, was told he might never walk when he was young. He defied that prediction. That makes the ability to play the sport he loves the most and doing it on the biggest stage something that he cherishes. Another reason he cherishes football so much is because of an interaction with a role model. Derrick Coleman, a Super Bowl champion who played for the Seattle Seahawks, is the first legally deaf offensive player in the NFL. “He supported all of us players, and he met the football team,” Dyke said. “He told me to just keep trying and trying and trying.”

It’s clear that football is Dyke’s passion. From his first years playing until now, he has become one of Special Olympics Arizona’s most intelligent players on the gridiron. Competing at the USA Games was a full-circle moment for Dyke: It was his turn to show others what is possible. Just like Coleman showed him.

A man holds a tablet in front of him. On the screen, you see an individual laying down and a group of people.
Despite an injury sustained in the last game, Special Olympics Arizona coaches ensured that Dyke could be part of the awards ceremony.

“Over the last 10 months, Chris has elevated his level of play more so than anyone on the team. He has improved with every single practice and has become an irreplaceable member of the team,” Parker said. “And even with all of that, the most important thing Chris brings to the team is his love of the game and his positive attitude. It’s infectious, and it has an effect on every member of our team. And I can’t ask for anything more than that.”

Several months ago, when Special Olympics North America featured Arizona’s flag football team in a USA Games story, members of the team referred to the competition, hosted at the ESPN Wide World of Sports, as their Rose Bowl. Playing at that venue is a unique experience, which comes with some benefits. While in Orlando, Tim Tebow, one of college football’s greatest quarterbacks of all-time, surprised the team.

“To say that this was one of the highlights of the week would be an understatement,” Parker said. “Just seeing Tim Tebow at the Opening Ceremony was enough to get the team excited; they had no idea they would be meeting him less than 48 hours later.”

When the Arizona team met Tebow, he jumped in and scrimmaged with them. Athletes and Unified partners caught touchdown passes from the two-time National Champion and Heisman Trophy–winning quarterback. Tebow even communicated with Dyke through sign language. “For someone of his status to be that willing to take the time to make a connection with our team and our athletes, I could not possibly have any more respect for him as a person,” Parker said. “I mean, he was even asking me how to sign to Christopher, asking things like ‘How do I tell him good job?’”

Two men hold up a flag football jersey and sign "I love you" in American Sign Language.
Special Olympics Arizona's Unified flag football team holds Chris Dyke's jersey up while receiving their gold medals, sending him a message of love when he couldn't be there in person.

In the team’s last game, Dyke broke two bones in his arm and had to have emergency surgery in Orlando. While his injury sidelined him, his previous efforts were rewarded with some hardware.

Playing in a round robin–style bracket, Arizona won the gold medal. It was a moment that they had envisioned for months. Their new mantra is “everywhere we go, we go together,” and because of the USA Games, they are now closer than ever.