The Patriots may have been playing in Pittsburgh on November 14, but the competition at Gillette Stadium still rivaled any game in Foxborough.
That Sunday morning, nearly 600 Special Olympics athletes lined the gates at Gillette Stadium eagerly awaiting the start of the exciting opening ceremonies to kick off the Special Olympics 2nd Annual Flag Football & Cheerleading Games hosted by the New England Patriots Charitable Foundation.
Athletes were treated to a true Patriots football experience, as they participated in a skills competition in the Dana-Farber Fieldhouse where the Patriots practice and competed in flag football games on the field at Gillette Stadium.
]()"You can see it in the eyes of all these athletes, how special it is to come here," said Kathy Johnson, mother of one of the Special Olympic athletes. "It is amazing they have an opportunity to play on a field they see on TV and they they've played here. It's quite special for all the athletes. We watch the Patriots on TV all the time and for him to be able to say he has made a touchdown on the field of Gillette is quite memorable."
Last year the competition began as a way to introduce the sport to the Special Olympics of Massachusetts athletes, hoping the addition will spark interest in Special Olympics programs across the nation. "Football was the only large sport that was not offered in Special Olympics," said Megan Hoffman, Special Olympics South Sector Director. "There was a demand for it so last year we started very small with the skills competition and in one year it has exploded to the 35 teams from across the region that are here today."
During the day, rotating flag football games spanned the length of the field and King Phillip Pop Warner and Patriots Cheerleaders conducted a cheering clinic and demos in the end zone. In the Dana-Farber Field House, athletes participated in a skills competition run by Patriots Alumni Roland James, Peter Brock, Garin Veris, Harold Shaw and Ed Ellis as well as King Phillip coaches and athletes.
Every athlete was recognized and received a medal from Patriots Executive Director of Community Affairs and Pro Football Hall of Famer Andre Tippett. "This is a great day that showcases teamwork, camaraderie and these kids love for football. The Kraft family and the New England Patriots Charitable Foundation are glad to partner with SOMA and help bring the sport to these children while they create life-long memories," said Tippett.
]()Rowdy parents and spectators and a couple of touchdown dances were reminders that athletes had practiced hard for the competition and were fighting for a win. Partners from the Unified Athletes Program, which works to combine individuals with intellectual disabilities (athletes) and individuals without intellectual disabilities (partners) on sports teams, joined them on the field after working together during the season to teach and play the game.
"My son's a senior, and came to me and wanted to get involved. He is a Partner today and is enjoying today as much as the Special Olympics athletes," said Ann Marie Mills, who volunteered to drive the bus for the Taunton Cubs team. Their team had conducted a pregame rally at their school the Friday before the games. "This is a chance of a lifetime for these kids to play on the same field that the Patriots play on. It's so exciting for the parents and families watching, it's a dream come true."
Everyone felt like champions, and though at the end of the day, the lit cauldron showcasing the 'Flame of Hope' was extinguished, athletes clearly carried their hope home with their families with medals in hand.
"I've known a lot of these athletes and teams for a long time. This is absolutely the highlight of their year, if not their life," said Hoffman. "This is a field of champions, the Patriots are champions and for them to compete on the same field and share in being a champion is remarkable."