TOMS RIVER – The renowned Field of Dreams recently lived up to its namesake as the backdrop for a spirited flag football showdown between two unified high school teams.
In a historic first, the Toms River East Raiders and Wall Crimson Knights Unified flag football teams met on the field, demonstrating the power of inclusion and sportsmanship. The Raiders emerged victorious with a 28-21 win over the Crimson Knights.
The two unified sports teams previously played kickball on the same field in the spring. Unified Sports, an initiative associated with the Special Olympics, bridges the gap between students receiving special services and their general education peers, fostering a spirit of camaraderie and shared passion for athletic pursuits.
Behind every touchdown and cheer were dedicated student and staff coaches, guiding both the Toms River East and Wall Unified teams with passion and commitment, proving that dreams can become a reality on and off the field with the proper support.
Numerous student coaches/mentors from both teams were drawn from the ranks of their respective schools’ varsity football teams. Raider Nation and Crimson Knights students added team spirit from the sidelines, chanting player names in true pep rally fashion.
Adding an official flair to the game, both schools enlisted the support of their varsity cheerleaders, while Toms River East elevated the experience with the accompaniment of their school band.
Toms River East Unified Team member Christian Colon stood transfixed as the band’s horns and drums filled the air with their stirring melodies. Just a few minutes remained before he and his teammates would take the field for warmups, and the anticipation was palpable.
“I like the music,” nodded Christian. “It all sounds good.”
For some team players, the bustling environment might have been overwhelming. Their uniforms included headphones, creating a personal soundscape that filtered out the potential for sensory overload.
The magic of the unified flag football game didn’t just stay within the confines of the Field of Dreams. It reached a wider audience as TRSTV, Toms River Schools TV, broadcasted the heartwarming event, allowing viewers to witness the inspiring collaboration between special needs and typical students. The student production assistants and announcers were also part of the endeavor.
“The idea was to create as much of a real game experience that high school kids get for the special needs kids,” shared Christian Kane, co-founder of RWJBH Field of Dreams. “We wanted to give them everything – cheerleaders, a pep rally, lunch or dinner afterward.”
Kane explained that bringing the concept of unified teams to life was a year-long project. The journey began in September 2022 as a collaboration with Toms River East in organizing the kickball game played in May. Now, Kane has shifted his focus to Toms River North, laying the groundwork for their debut kickball game.
While the tight score told one story, the true triumph extended far beyond any number tally. The game epitomized one of the primary missions of the Field of Dreams. It was a win/win for every player, helper, and onlooker who watched it happen.
The resounding cheers from the crowd, the unwavering determination on the players’ faces, and the infectious enthusiasm of the coaches painted a picture of unity and sportsmanship that surpassed the boundaries of the field.
As players from both teams gathered on the field, their hands outstretched in a post-game ritual of sportsmanship, Kane seized the opportunity to share a personal story. He explained how the Field of Dreams came into being as a result of an unforgettable nightmare.
Kane asked everyone on the field to turn around as he pointed to some trees on the other side of the complex.
“On July 12, 2012, through those trees, there is a back entrance into Toms River North High School,” Kane said. “That is where I got into a car accident with my son Gavin.”
“He went from being typical to someone who now lives in a wheelchair and has special needs,” continued Kane. “That day was the worst day of my life.”
Kane instructed the crowd on the field to turn back and face him.
“Look at me,” he said. “Today is now the best day of my life.”
The inaugural flag football game between Toms River East and Wall Unified Teams served as proof that through collaboration and inclusion, dreams can indeed come true.
Every single person at the game left a winner – with a job well done. More than a few had tears in their eyes.