Last Thursday was a very special day for Rocco Cortese.
As a young man with special needs attending Sparta High School, he participates in basketball and track and field as part of the school’s Unified Sports program.
At the urging of Sparta High School football coach Frank Marchiano, a connection was forged between the football team and United Sports/Special Education Life Skills students during a day of bonding, games, and fun on the turf.
“I think it’s great and unbelievable that Coach Marchiano and Coach Schock could make this happen,” Rocco said.
Sparta started a Special Olympics program in 2017 and added Unified Sports in 2020-21.
“Here we are four years late, and it’s just gotten better and better,” said Rocco, who is graduating this year. He feels that the strong foundation the school’s Unified Sports Program will only continue to grow.
“When we learned of the Special Olympics’ United Sports initiative, we felt it was very important to bring to Sparta,” said Jennifer Schock, special education teacher, Special Olympics coach, and Unified Sports coach. “This year, we did soccer, basketball and track and field as part of the Unified Sports Program. The program includes both kids with intellectual disabilities and those without intellectual disabilities coming together as a team. The program fosters physical activity, friendships, inclusion and understanding.”
Schock stressed that those without disabilities who participate aren’t volunteers, they’re teammates.
“So when teammates see one another in the hall or during the school day, they’re all on the same team, and that’s a great feeling both for the kids with disabilities and those who we call ‘Unified Teammates’ who don’t have disabilities,” she said.
Josh Ermeus is one of the Unified teammates. He’s also a three-sport athlete who participates in Sparta’s football, basketball and track and field programs. On top of three sports and academics, how does he also find time to be on the Unified soccer, basketball, and track and field teams?
“I make it work,” he said. “This program is incredible, and I’m honored to be a Unified teammate.”
Josh left our interview to get back to a game of cornhole with his United Sports teammates on the football turf, where various activities were going on.
Passion is a shared sentiment when it comes to Unified Sports and its day of connection.
For Coach Marchiano, the “choose to include” initiative is about involving his team in the school’s program. It’s also personal. His daughter Gianna is autistic, so every day he sees the importance of involvement and inclusion for special-needs children.
“If she expresses interest in an activity, my wife and I do whatever we can to encourage it and get her involved,” he said.
All the participants involved wore matching tee-shirts with “Unified Stand” printed on the back.
“Everyone loved getting a shirt, and it helped to make us one big team for the day,” Marchiano said. “This day was so important for everyone and is something we definitely plan to repeat.”
Dr. Jane Esposito, a Sparta High School psychologist, liked what she saw. “The SHS Football Team and Special Olympics/Unified, as well as all individuals with special needs, are bridging a very special union by not only creating positions on and off the field but having the players find opportunities to create relationships,” she said.
Run under the auspices of Special Olympics, Unified Sports promotes social inclusion and mutual respect at many schools throughout the country. Its mission is to encourage shared sports training and competition, enabling people of all abilities to build relations and have fun playing sports.
“When teammates see one another in the hall or during the school day, they’re all on the same team, and that’s a great feeling both for the kids with disabilities and those who we call ‘Unified Teammates’ who don’t have disabilities.” Jennifer Schock