HIGHLAND PARK (CBSDFW.COM) – This was one of the Facebook posts that the parents of students with special needs began posting early Sunday morning.
Cole busts in this morning at 6:30 AM and proclaims, “Mom wake up! It’s the best day of the year! It’s our Buddy Bowl and I get to be a Highland Park football player.”
Within hours, this woman’s son was headed to Highlander Stadium in Highland Park, where he rushed to be a part of the second annual HP Buddy Bowl, a game founded by freshman football player Brayden Schager and his family.
Schager started the event two years ago with an outpouring of support from the Highland Park community. His freshman friends, his sister’s seventh grade classmates and all of their parents spent months getting sponsors and preparing for the event.
“I am thrilled and honored to participate with my boys in a neighborhood event to support these special athletes, who deserve their time to be champions,” said JoAnne Pettijohn, mom to freshman buddy Will Pettijohn.
The athletes arrived to freshmen lined up at the stadium, welcoming them into the front entrance. With high fives, cheers and smiles, they were partnered with a ninth-grade buddy, who took them to the field where they participated in four stations organized by Highland Park’s Class of 2021.
The buddies guided them through obstacle, kick, throw and catch clinics, where they warmed up for the big game.
The Texas Rangers mascot, Captain, danced around the kick station, entertaining the athletes as they tossed a few balls his way.
“I get to be with my buddy, Tanner,” said Coleman Jones, talking about his freshman partner, Tanner Schrank. “I also get to play a little football, which is kind of special, because it’s one of my favorite sports!”
Larry Williams started the game off with a beautiful performance of the national anthem. The 70-year-old musician began playing piano by ear at age 9. His family said that he practiced every day for weeks leading up to this annual event.
Highland Park High School student Haley Else followed with the Scots anthem. Else performed flawlessly last year as well, but she was a little nervous walking onto the field. Volunteers noticed what a difference a year makes! Else bounced onto the field this year, waving her arms for the crowd to cheer as she proudly took the mic and displayed complete confidence in her performance.
Highland Park coach Tristan Weber explained to the crowd how hard the Class of 2021 has worked to make this day happen, and why they do it. Weber said that they believe these athletes are the real champions in the community.
Finally, the game gets underway. And cheerful moment after moment, the gold and blue teams race up and down the field scoring touchdowns.
Returning gold team player Allie Wells is back, playing the same position as last year — her favorite one! “I get to be quarterback, because I love throwing the ball,” said Wells, who ran for a touchdown in the first quarter, eventually leading her team to score 49 points!
Despite the warm Saturday, the athletes and their buddies stayed on the field to hear each player’s name called, as announcer Jim Castellaw asked them to individually step forward. Each player was recognized as “a champion of the second annual HP Buddy Bowl” as the freshmen draped medals around their necks.
Schager, gold team coach Carson Green and blue team coach Sam Morse then rushed out to the players, presenting them with a trophy for a “game that is a game changer!” The crowd cheered and the players raced to place their hands on their prize award.
“The champions are always the kids with special needs. They never get to do stuff like this, and football has always been big in Highland Park… it’s awesome to bring it here for these kids,” said Schager.
The day wrapped up with free lunch, ice cream, T-shirts, balloons, face painting and footballs for the participating athletes.
CBS 11 is a major sponsor of the event.