Saturday afternoon, the NC State Wolfpack faced off against North Carolina Tar Heels in a prime time matchup between in-state rivals. But the game wasn’t filled with flags for unfair penalties, nor were there any harmful tackles, flamboyant touchdown dances, or aggressive play. Actually, there might’ve been a few nice dance moves thrown on the field.
That’s because the game wasn’t a rivalry game between schools but an exhibition of sportsmanship and inclusion.
Special Olympics North Carolina held its annual Unified Sports Flag Football Game between NC State and UNC-Chapel Hill at Close-King Indoor Practice Facility in Raleigh. The teams were made up of Special Olympic athletes and student partners playing together from their respective universities. In doing so, Unified Sports brings together people with and without intellectual disabilities and creates long-lasting friendships through challenging, but exciting and worthwhile activities.
NC State quarterback, cornerback and wide receiver extraordinaire Markus Sanders said, “we like to have fun,” before flashing a big grin and saying, “but we’d also like to win.”
“We’re really all about inclusion,” said Lauren West, president of the Special Olympics club at NC State. “We’re no different than they are, and honestly I think we get more out of it than they do because there’s so much we learn from them.”
There to emcee the event were WRAL-TV news anchor Ken Smith and Special Olympics Johnston County athlete Brogan DeBuhr. Special Olympics Wake County athlete Abbie Urbina sang the national anthem, and after the athletes recited the Special Olympics Oath, the game finally started.
After the lead traded places between the two teams, NC State led 18-14 at the half. As the two teams came off the field, the Orange County All Abilities Cheer team lead the crowd in a riveting halftime cheer. At the end of their routine, the NC State team suddenly walked onto the field and handed the cheerleaders flowers, gaining more fans in the process.
NC State would hold its lead the rest of the game, and after the UNC players were given their silver medals at the awards ceremony, NC State got its gold medals, and a championship trophy to show off to its home crowd. But the NC State players didn’t relish in their victory too much, nor did the UNC players hang their heads in defeat. There was a sense that something bigger than football was at play here, and that everyone had something to be proud of.
NC State won the game 30-22, but in a day where both teams played hard and had their share of dazzling moments, it was one of those few times where all the players walked off the field as winners.