The Browns want football to be as inclusive of a sport as possible, and one way they've consistently been able to achieve that mission over the last decade has been through the Adapted Football League.
The league started in 2011 as the first competitive adapted football program in Ohio and gives children and adults with disabilities the opportunity to participate in an organized, competitive and developmental sport that would otherwise be unavailable to them.
Browns Give Back has been a proud supporter of the league since its inception, and its significance to its 124 players and families was on full display Saturday at Lutheran West High School, where the league gathered for its annual All-Star Game. Browns Pro Bowl guard Joel Bitonio — as well as players and coaches from Lutheran West High School — played with and assisted the players to create an unforgettable experience for all participants.
"It's such a huge event for these players," said Ryan Holesko, the manager of the AFL. "These players will remember this day — this hour and a half out on this field — for the rest of their lives. It's a highlight of our season."
Players in the league participated in practices and games on Saturday mornings throughout the summer. The primary focuses for each player include skill development, social interaction and physical exercise. The league is organized into two divisions — one for able-bodied players and another for players using wheelchairs. Players were also given special Browns jerseys to wear during their games.
Bitonio, entering his ninth season with the Browns, has attended multiple AFL All-Star Games and has always enjoyed seeing how much the players embrace the sport.
"There's a lot of touchdowns, a lot of celebrations and a lot of fun," he said. "It shows how football is a great equalizer. Anybody can do it. It's fun for everyone. Giving these kids an opportunity to come out here and play is pretty cool, and for me to be a small part of it, it's awesome."
The 2022 All-Star Game was hosted by Lutheran West, an opportunity that was presented to its football coach, John Parrella, by one of his players, Josh Gates.
Gates, a rising senior and punter for the team, has volunteered in practices and games with the league for the last four years with his dad, Timothy. When he learned that the All-Star Game needed a venue and high school football players to assist in volunteering, he went to Parrella.
"I said, 'Let's do it,'" Parrella said. "Let's get the whole team involved. I think it would be a blast. We're just blessed to have the facility to host things like this and have the Browns as supporters. It's about giving back to kids that want to be just like them."
Indeed it was a blast, and the smiles, laughs and cheers of everyone on the field Saturday confirmed it.
"It was one of the best feelings in the world, to be honest," Gates said. "To see all the kids that came out and play games with smiles on their faces, it's just amazing. They were having so much fun out there, running around and playing football."
Thanks to Lutheran West, the Browns and the dedicated work from coaches and staff of the Adapted Football League, players were treated to another incredible day of lifelong memories.
"It's amazing," said Connie Boros, the Vice President of Achievement Centers for Children. "It's all awesome, and to have the high school team out there with them makes it a full community experience. We're so excited."