Point Pleasant: "Real" Football for kids with special needs

Source: Asbury Park Press
While inspiring moments have played out on football fields up and down the Jersey Shore this fall, no last-second touchdown could possibly equal the scenes that play out twice a week behind Point Pleasant Boro High School, where football isn’t simply some tired metaphor for life but rather an action plan that changes lives, teaches lessons and strengthens the community.
Intertwined with the Point Pleasant Challenger Pirates, a flag football team for children with special needs, were members of the Point Boro Panthers, the high school team whose efforts have been nothing short of heroic.
It’s football in its purest form, with the numbers on the scoreboard barely grazing the surface of this most unique association.
As they do every Thursday night, the Pirates joined their high school counterparts in the gym for the spaghetti dinner, a weekly staple during the season, before the Panthers, having already practiced in the afternoon, return to the field for the Pirates’ practice.
And when it comes time to actually play, it’s like game day anywhere in the country. There’s a public address announcer handling the pregame introductions, before the playing of the national anthem. There are referees and cheerleaders and enthusiastic fans, along with the blaring siren and flashing lights of a local fire truck.
Then the Pirates and Panthers play against each other in games that are as spirited as they are moving. Barry Ruggiero said, “My son said, `I want to play football.’ And there’s no programs like this.

“If I took him to a field somewhere and had a nerf football and said `OK, here’s football,’ he would be like ‘this isn’t football.’ But this is football. They do a great job with the games.’’

Pirates head coach Dan Richards looked on as practice his son, David, wearing a Point Boro jersey, stood near his teammate, Sal Voelbel, whose father, Guy, is one of the assistant coaches. There are stories about each of the players, who have a wide range of disabilities, and how the program has impacted their lives for the better.
Another Pirates assistant coach, Brittany Landis, who used to play for the team, which is co-ed, interacted with players on the field. It was her mother, Lynn, who urged Richards to attend a meeting they were having about starting a Challenger team in Point Pleasant four years ago.
“We actually played that first night in the gym. I had 13 kids back then, and 28 players from the high school team showed up. And it’s grown since then. I don’t know how to explain it, but there must be something in the water here in Point that makes these kids so special.’’

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