Smiles decorated the sidelines of the practice fields as a group of Special Olympians waited, with footballs, pictures, posters and other memorabilia in hand, for the opportunity to share some time with the University of Oklahoma football team on Friday, Aug. 9.
Annually, head coach Bob Stoops and his squad host the group and offer a chance for them to interact with the players and coaches, receive autographs, take photos and exchange a few hugs.
Among the Special Olympics athletes were a trio of best friends nicknamed “The Three Musketeers.” Jacob Southerland, age 20; JD Hatch, age 19; and Jennifer Black, age 19; all attend Westmoore High School and will graduate this year. Jacob’s mom Vikki said the three “do everything together” and the OU post-practice football event is one they like to attend each year.
The families appreciate that the event is in existence, and they hope it continues, JD’s mother Betty Hatch stated.
“They [Jacob, JD and Jennifer] can’t do very much in the summer, and this is part of their summer that they always look forward to before school starts,” Betty said. “They are always asking, ‘When is it time to go? When is it time to go?’”
Betty said that they attend other events for the Special Olympians in Norman, including OU track meets and basketball games. She also shared a story about one time when she and her son went through the line for autographs from the OU women’s basketball team. Former basketball player Courtney Paris took the time to walk around the time and sit and talk to JD for several minutes. To her, this reflects the character of OU’s student-athletes.
“That’s how awesome the OU football players and other athletes are and just how respectful and courteous they are,” Hatch said.
Both redshirt junior offensive lineman Tyrus Thompson and senior running back Damien Williams said it was enjoyable to see how enthusiastic the Special Olympians were to meet the team.
“It is great coming out here and seeing how excited they are, and it makes me excited to do this after a long day of practice,” Williams expressed. “I feel like if they come out here and support us, then I can support them and sign autographs … We are not doing this for ourselves [playing football]. We are doing this for our fans. This is the stuff I live for. This is what I love to do.”
Thompson said he thinks it means a lot that the football team had a chance to give back to the community and liked knowing how much it meant to the Special Olympians to have the opportunity to meet the team.
“It gives you something to look forward to, and you know that other people are watching with so much excitement and enthusiasm,” Thompson continued. “It just makes it that much more fun.”
Betty Jean Cummins, or Grandma BJ as her grandkids call her, brought her grandson Christopher, age 20, to the event. Christopher, who admits he is a big OU fan, attended Southmoore High School in Moore, Okla., with OU QB Kendal Thompson. Christopher said that seeing his former schoolmate with the Sooners makes him “happy for him.”
Since he was just an infant, Christopher has been attending OU football games because his family has season tickets. He also knows all kinds of OU football statistics and recently starting quoting some from back in the 1980s when being interviewed by his cousin for a project for her college class, Grandma BJ said.
An OU fan since the late 1940s, Grandma BJ said it “means the world” to her to see the excitement on the faces of the Special Olympians. She added it is a “blessing” to have Bob Stoops as the coach of the Sooners and to see him provide this unique opportunity to these young men and women.
Grandma BJ hails from Tuttle, Okla., home of OU Heisman winner Jason White. She called White “a fine young man” and added that is the type of student-athletes she sees at Oklahoma.
“That’s what Oklahoma produces, whether they are native Oklahomans or come in here to go to school,” Grandma BJ declared. “The school produces fine young men and women who are our futures, and they are making a legacy right here on this field today.”