TOMS RIVER – Rutgers Scarlet Knights played their most admirable game of the season with just five of their own players last week. No matter that the Toms River Warriors claimed victory with a winning score of 42-12.
With inclusion the real name of the game, the Scarlet Knights proved they were all in. Football players from Toms River East joined the college team to take on the Warriors, a group of special needs kids and young adults from Monmouth and Ocean counties.
The game of flag football took place at RWJ Barnabas Health’s Field of Dreams. During a pre-game press interview, the college players shared some of the reasons they accepted the invitation to play the Warriors.
Rutgers Quarterback Noah Vedral said he had the chance to participate in the Special Olympics Opening Ceremony earlier this year in Trenton. He found it to be extremely rewarding, saying he enjoyed events that involved community engagement.
“When this came up, I didn’t hesitate at all,” said Vedral. “It’s football; it’s what I do. I knew we were going to be with some great kids who really deserved our time and attention and a good game of football.”
As it turns out, the Warriors gave the Scarlet Knights a good run for their time. The home team raced to score touchdown after touchdown. When one of the young players fell to the ground, the Rutgers team dropped to their knees as they waited for the Warrior to recover.
Scarlet Knights’ Rani Abdulaziz pulled a surprise move when he decided the Rutgers team needed an add-on player. Abdulaziz quickly tossed his red jersey over the head of nine-year-old Riley Versacio and lifted the youngster up onto his shoulders.
“They wanted me to switch to their team,” Riley proclaimed excitedly. “It was the best part of the game.”
After the Scarlet Knights accepted their defeat, Abdulaziz wrapped his arm around Riley’s shoulder and said the Scarlet Knights needed Riley because he got the ball and executed great blocking.
The Field of Dreams concept was the brainchild of Christian and Mary Kane, who decided to make something good come after a motor vehicle crash that left their son with debilitating injuries. The couple noticed the lack of recreational activities for those with disabilities and worked with a multitude of donors to create a center for those with special needs.
When the complex held its grand opening in May, local celebrity baseball player Todd Frazier made the ceremonial first catch as the Kane’s son, Gavin, pitched the ball to him. From all appearances, Gavin’s on par as an inspiration to athletes with special needs.
Gavin had his first opportunity to meet the Scarlet Knights when he scored a touchdown for the team as part of a spring scrimmage. At home with his Warriors teammates, Gavin seemed extra excited to take part in the half-time show as his mom danced his wheelchair through the motions.
“The idea with this game is that we’re a special needs team,” reminded Christian. “We really wanted to play against other typical players, because that’s how Mary and I want to redefine the word inclusion – inclusive play of people of all abilities, coming together, having fun, and enjoyment.”
Perhaps it’s no coincidence that one of the Scarlet Knights who came to be part of the inclusion literally came home for the event. Toms River North alumni Parker Day said the game against the Warriors was extremely important to him.
“It’s very personal to me,” Day shared. “Mr. Kane was my teacher and this all means a lot to me.”