HIGHLAND PARK (CBSDFW.COM) – “Will I be a champion?” asked eighth-grade student with special needs Will Demers. He was paired for the day with Marshall Landwehr, an eighth-grade football player at Highland Park Middle School. “Everyone’s going to be a champion,” explained Landwehr.
It’s the overwhelming busy month of May. For a group of eighth-grade boys from Highland Park Middle School, this means sports tournaments, play-offs, finals, and their final year of junior high. But, in addition to all that, they’ve spent the last two months planning for a day that they had no idea would create such lasting memories on them, their friends with special needs, and their entire community.
On May 20, 2017, the Highland Park Class of 2021 held its first annual HP Buddy Bowl and it turned out bigger and better than anyone ever imagined.
MAY 20, 2017
The day began bright and early for nearly 100 volunteer parents who showed up wearing gold and blue T-shirts with a crest reading HP Buddy Bowl: Texas Pure — May 20, 2017. Texas Pure had donated the more than 200 shirts that would soon be worn in the stadium.
The volunteers set up registration tables, volunteer stands, hung banners, and prepared the field with football practice stations for the 33 athletes with special needs who soon arrived to play football and cheer.
As the athletes with special needs began to arrive, the eighth graders formed two lines at the entrance of Highlander Stadium greeting them as you would a celebrity on red carpet. The athletes smiled, waved and high-fived. Their heads held high.
Their parents signed in. The athletes got assigned to the blue or gold team, received a shirt, a jersey for the day, and got paired with their eighth grade “buddies.” They were introduced to one eighth grader who would spend the day one-on-one teaching the game and running beside them on the field, assisting in any way.
Highland Park eighth-grader Brayden Schager was assigned to Landon Miller, a seventh-grader whom he has known for years at school. Schager took Miller to the field to begin the kick, catch, throwing, and obstacle station. Other eighth-graders had spent the morning setting these up so they could train their special guests on how to play the game that would begin in one hour.
Schager and his mom, longtime CBS 11 News Senior Investigative Reporter Ginger Allen, had dreamed up this idea back in November when they saw a similar game in Colorado.
“We thought there is nothing like this in Texas so it’s the biggest state for football, and we just thought it was a great idea!” said Schager.
Schager, his mom, and dozens of their closest eighth-grade friends and their parents teamed up to make this event happen by spending every weekend holding long meetings to plan it. But no one ever dreamed it would turn out the way it did. The little idea in November turned into a mission for these eighth-grade parents and their sons.
With two dozen football players with special needs on the field practicing, the day was underway as more than 40 Highland Park Middle School cheerleaders bounced in and lined up just like the eighth-grade boys had done. Two rows of eight-grade girls were there to greet the Sparkling Scots, the Highland Park High School’s cheer squad with special needs. In they came, high fives, hugs, and smiles. And then off they went, to the field, to prepare their halftime show together.
Next, one of the winningest coaches in the country arrived. Coach Randy Allen was leading the varsity football team to the state championship late last year when Schager and his mom sat around the table and decided this special needs football game needed to happen.
Many of those high school champions from the varsity team were also there to support the champions who had arrived at the stadium for the HP Buddy Bowl.
Coach Allen took the mic and welcomed the crowd. Nearly 300 people filled the field, the stands, and were working behind the scenes setting up tables for the free lunch and ice cream that would be served after the game.
“The smiles on people’s faces today and the friendships and relationships they will develop today through this Buddy Bowl will last them for a long time,” said Coach Allen.
After he spoke, he turned the mic over to the official Highland Park announcer whose voice is a familiar one to those who frequent this stadium. Wearing his red pants, fresh from his shift at the Byron Nelson Golf Tournment, Jim Castellaw announced, “Please rise for the playing of the National Anthem.”
Larry Williams, 70, and his brother-in-law moved a keyboard onto the field. Wiliams will be the first to tell you, “I’ve been playing piano since I was 3.” The musician with special needs plays by ear and can play just about anything, but the National Anthem has to be the most chilling. He nailed it again for this crowd. Tears rolled down faces and hairs stood on arms.
His ability to sing and play appeared to inspire the younger athletes with special needs, one in particular. Highland Park High School student with special needs Hayley Else was supposed to be up next. She’s sung the Highland Park song many times, but today, she told organizers early on, “I don’t want to do it. I just need some time,” putting up her hand up and walking away.
So, as she stood on the field nervous, clinging to a friend, no one knew for sure until the last minute if she would do it. Williams had received so many cheers after his performance, she seemed to have courage. Tournament said her name and up she stepped and sang.
Else told HP Buddy Bowl organizers later that day, she’d be back next year to sing again.
The blue and gold teams lined up on each end of the field. Castellaw called out the starting lineups which included all 12 gold team players and 11 blue team players.
“Go blue! Go gold!” They rushed through banners held by nearly 50 cheerleaers standing on the field yelling for them.
Three referees stood by, eighth-grade dads Mike Corwin and Jeff Landwehr and one eighth-grade coach from Highland Park Middle School, Coach Darren Eason. Together, with the eighth-graders, they’d decided to play from the 50-yard line after each drive. They’d spent weeks talking about their goal — to get the ball to each player if possible, but no one knew just exactly how this might go down.
Eighth-grade Gold Coach Carson Green showed up in khaki pants, a navy sports coat, a white polo, a gold tie, headset, a bucket hat and clipboard with plays and a plan.
Eighth-grade Blue Coach Sam Morse took a slightly more casual approach in khakis, a white collar hanging over his blue HP Buddy Bowl T-shirt, a black sports jacket, fishing hat and sunglasses to top of his look.
Coach Allen flipped the coin in an official toss. The gold team took possession and within minutes it was 7-0, 7-7, 14-7, 14-14 and by halftime everyone had scored on each possession. These eighth-grade buddies and their athletes with special needs were working the field like they’d been playing together for years — not less than two hours.
Ellie Wells was the only eighth-grade girl with special needs to play football. In fact, when she showed up one volunteer asked her if she was there to cheer and she quickly answered, “I’m here to play football.” Her mom told organizers, “She’s wanted to be a quarterback her whole life.” Wells threw one touchdown and ran for two, including one 50-yard run. The crowd went wild.
Coach Green flew down the field waving his clipboard. His only female athlete was on fire. “I loved seeing them all wanting the football in their hands and wanting to be a part of the game,” said Green.
The eighth-graders nicknamed the youngest player on the field “Wheels” because of his incredible running ability. Connor Whitcomb’s mom told organizers that the first-grader “loves football but… has been unable to play in traditional sports programs.”
Eighth-grader Camden Roy spent much of the first half standing at the opposite end of the field from the players with his athlete, Jacob Smith. Smith just wanted to hear the announcer say his name. He was a little bothered that hadn’t happened yet and so he refused to play. Roy recognized the problem and told Coach Green and Coach Morse that they needed to get Smith the ball. Roy convinced Smith to get back in the game for a “secret play.” Smith agreed and lined up. Within seconds, Smith had the ball heading down the sideline. He scored! And the crowd heard cheerleaders announce his name — repeatedly! Roy says another athlete’s mom had told him, “This is the only chance (he) will get to play football.” That was likely in Roy’s mind when he facilitated the play to Smith. It was moments like that these eight-graders couldn’t possibly plan.
In the final minutes of the game, Leonard Fox caught a pass that was almost a game-changer. Eighth-grader James McAnalley, who’d been running right by his side all morning said, “My favorite part of the HP Buddy Bowl was when Leonard Fox scored a touchdown.”
“It was a moment I don’t think Leonard or I or the Class of 2021 will ever forget. We came together a class, as a team, and as community,” said Blue Coach Sam Morse.
Jack Murzin was the only athlete in a wheelchair. Eighth-grader Worthey Wiles proudly claimed him early on in the planning. Wiles later said, “It was fun for me to be able to help him experience something he doesn’t get to do normally.” Chris Murzin, Jack’s dad, told organizers early on that their family had always hoped for something like this.
But for many spectators who already thought this was the greatest day ever, the last play may have been the most memorable. Two brothers with special needs, Justin Puga, 15, and Joshua Puga, 14, made the final play of the game and truly made this a day many will never forget. Joshua is high-functioning and had received the ball many times, but Justin had not. He’s nonverbal and was worn out by the end of the second half. Eighth-graders Charlie Clements and Brooks Bond had done all they could to get him to play but he was tired. In the final moments, a volunteer asked Justin’s mom if the eighth-graders could carry Justin into the end zone to score and she said, “Sure.”
The ball was snapped. It went to Justin. And, the plan changed. Rather than both eighth graders trying to pick Justin up, Coach Eason (one of the referees) stepped in and said, “I’ll pick him up. You might drop him.” Eason scooped up the approximately 75-pound boy and ran 50 yards down the field carrying him with nearly 50 kids and a sea of gold and blue hovering around him.
Castellaw announced, “What a block. We’ve never seen like this before at Highlander.” He continued with enthusiasm that sent the crowd to its feet. “Puga’s brother is right by his side.” Into the end zone, Eason carried Justin Puga. The buzzer sounded. Game over.
The score: 49-49.
GAME OVER MOMENTS
With “We are the Champions” playing faintly, each team lined up for the typical end-of-the-game high fives. The eighth-grade boys said they could hear their new friends with special needs saying, “We want to go into over-time.” They were not done. They wanted to play out the tie.
WE ARE THE CHAMPIONS
The eighth-graders hung medals around each players neck as Castellaw recognized each athlete.
“The Highland Park Class of 2021 recognizes John Lawson Florer for being a champion in the first annual HP Buddy Bowl.”
“The Highland Park Class of 2021 recognizes Aiden Easterling for being a champion in the first annual HP Buddy Bowl.”
“The Highland Park Class of 2021 recognizes…”
Castellaw continued with each athlete getting his or HER name.
Eighth-grader Will Pettijohn summed it up best on behalf of his class. “I loved seeing the smiles on the kids’ faces cause it made me feel like I was doing something that was right.”
Food, fun, take-home Highland Park footballs, and dessert followed as the athletes joined their eighth-grade friends for lunch from Slim Chickens and some off-the-field bonding before they headed home.
Howdy Homemade provided ice cream to the whole crowd. Owner Tom Landis later asked the organizers, “Can we do it next weekend?” The organizers said, “No!” These eighth-graders have finals next week and won’t have time to get ready for a tiebreaker.
But the Highland Park community plans to see everyone back next year when this volunteer village comes together again to help the Highland Park Class of 2021 host the second annual HP Buddy Bowl.