At dusk it’s one of the most magnificent backdrops in all the country. Each year the Rose Bowl and the Tournament of Roses Parade leaves people in awe. It’s topped with a sun-kissed sky, tall skinny palm trees surrounding the stadium and the San Gabriel Mountains off in the distance. Countless red roses overtake the area. To the sports world and beyond, it’s the most iconic venue in sports. But to a select few, there is another venue that will soon hold significant importance.
Come June, Special Olympics athletes from around the North America Region will compete at the Special Olympics USA Games in Orlando. With the host site for much of the competition set to be the ESPN Wide World of Sports, there’s a sense of prestige attached to it.
“It’s the closest we’ll be able to play in the Rose Bowl,” says Chris Fitterer, a Unified partner and safety for the Special Olympics Arizona flag football team. “It’s such an honor to play at the ESPN Wide World of Sports. It’s the worldwide leader in sports.”
Only miles away from Disney World, the ESPN Wide World of Sports sits in the blistering sun surrounded by beautiful, maintained palm trees and freshly cut grass. And since it’ll be the first time a Special Olympics event of this size will be hosted there; the pressure will follow.
For first-year starting quarterback Ryan Fixel it’s an unfamiliar feeling, but the soon-to-be 18-year-old feels even if he’s not ready for the moment right now, he will be. “It’s very nerve racking, but I’m preparing for it,” Fixel says about the USA Games. While practicing in Arizona he tries to imagine what the crowd will be like, but knows that in Orlando, “it’s a whole different ballgame and I’ve got to stay calm under pressure.”
Seasoned athlete and wide receiver Arthur Moreno isn’t unfamiliar with the atmosphere, but it’s been over a decade since he’s felt what it’s like to compete on the national stage. He competed at the 2010 Special Olympics National Games in Lincoln, Nebraska. When he speaks, you can sense Moreno is a straight-to-the-point competitive person, but he is also excited for the overall experience.
“Just seeing everyone and playing football while just seeing what everyone's all about,” Moreno says is what he looks forward to. While Moreno isn’t much of a talker, he is a person who values family and understands the importance of a team. His family will be one of many in Florida, their cheers echoing throughout the venue and motivating their team to excel.
“We were made for this,” says head coach Travis Haley.
Haley has been involved with Special Olympics Unified Sports® for nine years and feels very fortunate to coach the flag football team. But little did he know, he’d be dealt with a gigantic job: hosting tryouts and making cuts. With more than 60 athletes and Unified partners trying out, he and coach Luke Parker had to get the roster down to just 10 individuals: six athletes and four Unified partners.
While evaluating the athletes, Haley jokingly says, “it's obvious there were some that have some real athletic ability, so much so that we were like ‘whoa they're bigger than I am, they’re faster than I am, and I’m supposed to be the one coaching.’” But as tryouts progressed, they started to narrow down the list.
“We really honed in on how they interact with each other. How did they handle failure?” Haley recalls. “When we had water breaks and stuff like that, we were very observant in how they grouped themselves together.” The coaches steered away from having multiple cliques and instead focused on having one cohesive group.
Parker says, “in no way did we expect to have to hold a second tryout. We thought we were going to get everything we needed after that first day and we would have our team selected and we'd be good to go.”
Knowing who the Unified partners would be following the first tryout, the coaches went searching for help selecting the athletes. “Going into the second tryout, we told those partners that we had selected that we would be asking for their input following the tryout,” Parker says about narrowing down the athlete roster. “After the second tryout, we presented the partners with the twelve athletes that came back for the second tryout and asked them to work together to pick their top six athletes.” Without knowing which six athletes the coaches had in mind, the Unified partners collaborated and ended up picking the exact same top six.
The team has a little bit of everything you need to succeed in football. Size, speed, experience, and knowledge. For Fitterer, he’s basically the quarterback on defense. “I call the coverages we will be running or if someone is going to blitz, I get to make those type of calls and it’s really fun for me because football is such a game of chess,” Fitterer says.
But what might be the most impressive piece of the chess game is Arizona’s offensive weaponry. Wide receiver Christopher Dyke is hearing impaired, but his football IQ is off the charts. Getting a sense of when the ball will be snapped, he recognizes what signals need to be called and where each athlete should be lined up.
“His adaptive skills are so tremendous that he’s already read us,” Haley says about Dyke. “Him and I had hand signals the first day of tryouts. He knew what meant bull rush and he knew when I needed them to adjust.”
He’s a "do it all" type of player. Not only is he doing his job, but he can do others, too. It’s rare to find a player like him, like a Bryce Young or Jaxson Smith-Njigba. No matter what you do to stop them, they can and will impact the game.
Run similarly to all-star teams, Special Olympics Arizona’s flag football team won’t be able to meet often, only about three times a month. Holding practices on Sundays, they start with positional drills and rotating athletes to see what the best lineup is. Not giving too much away to the competitors, Haley mentions that they have a few plays already drawn up.
Haley says the mindset of the team is, “we’re going to be a competitive team. We might not win every game, but we are going to know no team worked harder than we did. They are going to remember who team Arizona is.”
Fixel didn’t get too deep into the game plan, but he did express that his favorite player is Kyler Murray, essentially pointing to the style of play he likes. He continues to improve setting his feet properly and getting ready to lead his team out onto the field on the biggest stage. Moreno and Dyke are providing the skill and knowledge to be a well-polished team, while Fitterer is taking care of the defense. Each player doing their job, providing the necessary balance to compete at the highest level.
And while the Rose Bowl is roughly 2,519 miles away from where they’ll be playing in Orlando, having the image of the most iconic venue in sports in their minds might just be what they need to become champions.