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Fort Hayes Makes Debut at Special Olympics Flag Football State Championships, Crowned State Runner-Up

students posing

November 09, 2023 — Competition day began bright and early for high school athletes at Fort Hayes Arts and Academics and Northland High Schools. The two teams were mere hours away from competing in the Special Olympics Flag Football State Championships.

Northland walked onto the field as returning state champions, while the team from Fort Hayes would be making their debut as a flag football team and Special Olympics program.

For many students, being on the team was an opportunity for them to explore new athletic interests and gain experience with an unfamiliar sport.students posing in uniforms

Ty Smith, a senior from Beechcroft High School, attends the Fort Hayes Career Center. Smith was a member of the Beechcroft Cougars boys soccer team, but he hadn’t played flag football since early childhood. The Special Olympics team gave him the chance to rediscover why he enjoyed it as a kid. 

“I’ve never been a football person,” said Smith. “I didn’t have any interest in flag football, but actually playing it made me realize the opportunity to play competitively in the future.”

Waking up to the beeping of his 6 a.m. alarm clock, Smith put on his red, black, and white jersey, left his hotel room, and made his way to the lobby. The smell of bacon and waffles filled the room as Smith and his teammates were treated to what he calls the “breakfast of champions” - eggs, sausage, and bagels.

Following breakfast, the two teams stepped onto the charter bus to be shuttled to the competition. Teams were set to compete in a bracket system with double elimination, and Smith was excited to take the field.

“I’m a competitive person,” said Smith. “I was shocked. The competition was really exciting.”

Little did the team know the competition wasn’t the only challenge the athletes would overcome that day. During gameplay, the team experienced a minor hiccup when a player’s shoe fell apart while sprinting down the field.

“We had a student whose shoes broke,” said Krysta Cordell, intervention specialist. “We found out that he and the coach had the same shoe size.”

The coach then took off his shoes and gave them to the athlete so that he could compete. He then coached the rest of the day in his socks.

The team overcame this challenge and won their first game of the day. The second game ended with a gut-wrenching loss.

“They were a really good team,” said Smith. “We lost by a few points. It was difficult.”

From the sidelines, Cordell watched her students as if she was watching her own kids. She saw each player experience the highs and lows of athletic competition. She knew without a doubt that they would be leaving this weekend with more than a medal.

“Our students learned that they were capable of more than just athletics, she said. “They learned how to maintain grace, sportsmanship, and respect in the face of some not-great sportsmanship from other teams.”

Despite the loss, the team refused to give up something like this. The bracket was double elimination, which gave Smith and his teammates an opportunity that could lead them to the gold medal.

“We found out that we could possibly get first place,” said Smith. The entire team was on board, he said about the opportunity to play one more game. “We said, ‘Why not? Let’s challenge them.’”

And challenge them they did. After hours of running, pulling flags, and throwing touchdowns, the team from Fort Hayes made school history by earning second place at the 2023 Special Olympics Flag Football State Championship. 

“Our athletes played five hours straight and never complained,” said Cordell. “They played until the end. They never wanted to quit. I’m super proud of them.”

Before the drive back home, both schools came together to visit Lake Erie, hike the local Metropark, and even stop at a candy store. 

Cordell expressed their desire to see other schools in the District participate in the Special Olympics program. Both agree that increasing the net of competition for their students would be life-changing for all participants solely from what they witnessed at the state competition.

“Our goals were for the kids to have fun and represent Fort Hayes and Columbus City Schools,” said Cordell. “They totally exceeded our expectations.”