Victory Day Widens The Circle Of AW Football Community

The players yell encouragement while Zach Baden heads to the end zone.

BY KAREN GERHARDINGER | MIRROR REPORTER — Zach Baden clutched the football as the announcement came over the Schaller Stadium loudspeakers.

“Subbing at running back is No. 66, Zach Baden. Hand off to Zach. Zach takes the ball to the right. He’s at the 5. Touchdown!”

As the cheerleaders in the Anthony Wayne High School endzone spelled out “Touchdown,” 6-year-old Zach smiled and varsity football team members gathered around him to celebrate his win.

“This is awesome. We had a really good time,” said Zach’s father, Nick, as he looked around the field at the players, cheerleaders, coaches and parents who came out for Victory Day – an opportunity for students with cognitive and physical disabilities to team up with athletes to run drills and score a touchdown.

The July 27 event was the second time the program was offered by the Generals, said coach Anderson Brun-gard. A concept launched in college sports over a decade ago, Victory Day was first introduced by the Generals in 2019.

“COVID shut it down,” Brungard said. “As we went through a list of things we’d like to bring back, Victory Day was at the top of that list.” 

While Zach, who is in a wheelchair, is nonverbal, he made his favorite part of Victory Day clear with a nod: the blow-up football helmet that served as an entryway tunnel for the nine participants to enter the field.

“He doesn’t really like football, but he had fun,” Nick said. “He likes the social aspect. He loves being around people.”

Eleven-year-old Max Kleiboemer, who paired up with senior Maddow Barrow, showcased his throwing arm and foot agility in two different activities, while taking down other players in a tackling exercise that brought cheers from the crowd. Asked about his favorite part, Max’s answer was succinct: “All of it.”

For his dad, Dan Kleiboemer, the event was more emotional.

“This was something. It brought tears to my eyes,” Dan said.

The evening began with a jersey fitting, with each guest player selecting a favorite number. Once geared up, it was out to the field to run through the blow-up helmet and through a line of cheering players. Then each child – with help from a varsity player – tried out different warm-up activities before making a touchdown run.

Katie Balla watched as her foster son, King Gibson, did the rounds with senior Cadence Carswell.

“This is just so cool to see the older kids with the inclusion. It’s a really neat experience,” Balla said. “And King loves to play ball.”

Carswell, a running back and defensive lineman, was in awe of the experience as well.

“I like that it brought the community together,” he said. “We had a lot of senior leaders offer to help kids with a disability and I feel like it just brought out a bunch of people who don’t usually come to a practice or a junior kids’ night.”

Griffin Pike, who was a mentor to Zach, recalled how awestruck he was at being on the football field as a player for the first time in seventh grade. He could see how Zach and the other participants shared that elation.

“Really, just interacting with the kids and being able to see the enjoyment on their faces” was the highlight of the night, Pike said.

While the main purpose of Victory Day is to give AW students with disabilities an opportunity to enjoy a moment when the community supports, encourages and cheers for them, the other benefit is how it teaches the players servant leadership, Brungard said.

“It shows that it’s not all about ‘me.’ This is a great way for all of us to put our own desires aside and learn to appreciate everyone in our community that supports us and allows us to support them,” Brungard added. 

At the end of the event, the nine participating students and their families were treated by the Anthony Wayne Fullbackers to walking tacos from La Banda Mexican Restaurant and slushies from Snowy Summers. Each of the nine students also brought home their jersey and a commemorative helmet.

“I love being here. This is awesome,” said Bryce Douglas, a 1992 AW graduate who now is a special education assistant at the junior high. “It’s the best thing ever for our kids and community. To have it here with all of these coaches is amazing. Every one of these guys is worth their weight in gold.”

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