The Cleveland Browns Foundation on July 18 gave athletes from the Achievement Centers for Children's Adapted Football League the all-star treatment.
"Today is the best day," said Nick Farran, who was thrilled to play football alongside his younger brother Zack at the Cleveland Browns Training Facility in Berea.
Both Nick and Zack are on the autism spectrum. Their mother, Tonya, said the Adapted Football League has helped improve her sons' language, social and gross motor skills. The Achievement Centers for Children offer resources, support and recreational activities for children with disabilities. Mike Urban developed the Achievement Centers' adapted sports program, which includes baseball, basketball, wheelchair basketball, football and soccer.
"There was an unmet need for competitive sports for athletes with disabilities in Cleveland," Urban said.
The Adapted Football League formed out of mutual interest from the Achievement Centers for Children and the Cleveland Browns Foundation, said Renee Harvey, vice president of the Cleveland Browns Foundation.
"These athletes have shown me the importance of the true love of football," Harvey said.
Gail Brown, who coaches Special Olympics in Strongsville, said this program is special because of its connection to the Browns.
"The athletes love the Cleveland Browns facility, they love the Browns team, and most importantly, they each feel like a Cleveland Brown," she said.
The Adapted Football League finished its fifth season with a celebratory All-Star Game. The Cleveland Browns Drumline welcomed 106 youth and adult athletes onto the field, but some had to cover their ears. Though the music sounded terrific, those sensitive to loud noises weren't going let a bit of percussion stop them from making a grand entrance. In the spirit of the program, they adapted.
The Lou Groza youth cheerleaders, waving pom-poms with exuberance, greeted the athletes, who wore a matching No. 5 on their uniforms in honor of the Adapted Football League's fifth year.
Four football games, organized by age and ability level, ran simultaneously at the All-Star Event. Wheelchair athletes played outside on the flat pavement, while the rest remained indoors.
Cleveland Browns employees Miguel Pimentel, an account executive, and Brad Postlewaite, a premium sales representative, volunteer for the Adaptive Football League. They agreed that watching the young athletes interact with Browns players at an open skills session May 30 was a highlight of the season.
"The pure excitement and joy on their faces was the best part for me," Pimentel said.
The Adapted Football League continues to grow. Many athletes return every year and encourage their friends to join.
Jill Braford, whose 16-year-old son, Drew, has been part of the Adapted Football League since its inception, credits the program's success to its volunteers.
"We tried another program first and it just wasn't as organized," she said. "The volunteers here really make the difference."
At the closing ceremony, Urban became emotional during his remarks about the athletes and volunteers. Volunteers received thank-you T-shirts, and each athlete received an award and a gift bag courtesy of the Cleveland Browns Foundation.
"This program runs because of the athletes," Urban said in an interview. "It means a lot to be able to give them this kind of opportunity."
Darrell Townsend, one of the oldest athletes, said he returns to the Adapted Football League every year because it's a sport he can play without barriers.
"I'm almost 50, and I'm one of those players who looks at the game as just a game," Townsend said. "That's all it is to me. It's just a game."l