By Randy Kindred
Members of East St. Louis’ entry in the Special Olympics Illinois State Flag Football tournament arrived in Peoria feeling like champions.
When they left East St. Louis High School, a drumline sent them to the bus. This fall, during the school’s homecoming festivities, they were announced alongside East St. Louis’ varsity sports teams and rode on a float in the parade.
“They are fully embraced,” said Dr. Tiffany Gholson, Director of Parent and Student Services and the Wraparound Wellness Center in the East St. Louis school district.
Prior to Saturday’s competition, the players spent the night in a Peoria-area hotel.
“You should see the rooms they had,” Gholson said. “They had king-sized beds and they were in heaven.”
The weekend experience ran deeper than what happened on the field at the Louisville Slugger Sports Complex. Yet, East St. Louis proved to be a champion there as well in its first State Flag Football appearance.
The team earned the gold medal in the TD6 division with two victories, including a 60-18 verdict over DVSA of Naperville in the championship game.
“We’ve found that protective factors like sports and activities and adult and coaches’ instruction time slowly chips away at trauma that kids have experienced,” Gholson said. “For our kids, this gives them a positive outlet.”
The fun extended beyond the six-player roster of Darrius Clark, Jeremiah Beison, Gaybriel Rockett, Devonte Nicks, Dontreal Hodges and Josiah Randle. Head coach Vincent Anderson and assistant coach George Mumphard, both former college football players, had a blast as well.
Mumphard played cornerback and receiver at the University of Illinois and Lindenwood University.
Anderson was a star free safety at Southeast Missouri State University and went on to play professionally in the Arena Football League, the United Football League and the National Football League with the San Diego Chargers.
Coaching the Special Olympics Illinois athletes takes him back to when he fell in love with football.
“The game of football changed my life. Having the opportunity to coach these athletes … they love the game and they have so much fun every practice, every game,” Anderson said.
“I’m jumping around like a kid on the sidelines. The joy that I feel … playing professionally was fun, but at the same time, it’s a job. This is just volunteer (coaching) and it’s a lot of fun. We’re so proud of them. They did an exceptional job.”
A highlight came in the opening game against the Loyola Scorpion Kings. One of East St. Louis’ players struggled to catch the ball early on and heard about it from some teammates.
“Then he made the game-winning catch and he was smiling from ear to ear,” said Mumphard, who is an assistant principal at East St. Louis High School. “Being a former college athlete, seeing it from this aspect is totally different. It’s more genuine, it’s more heartfelt.”
Like Gholson, Anderson has his doctorate. He works for Gholson as a supervisor at the Wraparound Wellness Center. The mission is much larger than football and victories there – large or small – can be life-changing.
“We work with trauma recovery with the kids,” Anderson said. “We try to talk to them and mentor them and offer them as many resources as we can to help them self-mitigate for the extreme circumstances that they live under.”
National champs lead DVSA
The DuPage Valley Special Athletes (DVSA) brought three national flag football gold medalists to the state competition. Naperville’s Peter Sliagi, Ryan Gronowski and Louis Pisani were members of Team Illinois and helped win the gold medal at the Special Olympics USA Games in Orlando, Florida, in June.
Gronowski said the best part was “meeting new people, making new friends.”
“It was pretty fun,” Silagi said. “It was our first time doing it with (Team) Illinois. We just got a team together and played for the first time.”
DVSA coach Paul Pisani, Louis’ father, said the national gold medalists “kind of take a leadership role with the (DVSA) team and the new players around them, which is nice.”
To learn more about State Flag Football or to view results, click here.