Two versions of the Red River Rivalry played out the first weekend of October.
The one at the Cotton Bowl drew nearly 100,000 spectators for a wild finish that came down to a last-second field goal for a Longhorns victory, while a much smaller crowd gathered the night before in Highlander Stadium for a game with a special purpose.
(ABOVE: OU vs. Texas at Highlander Stadium. Photos by Chris McGathey)
For the first time, student athletes from the universities of Texas and Oklahoma paired with Special Olympics athletes from the two states played flag football in University Park to raise money and awareness.
Part of the Unified Rivalry Series sponsored by ESPN and Special Olympics North America, the spirited affair had students from rival universities immersed in the essence, and purpose, of the game: Fun.
“We’re all a family. We don’t have to worry about how people view or judge us.” -Jamaal Charles
“They totally bought into it and loved it,” said Mike Strickland, event coordinator and director of Special Olympics Northern District. “To see the support they get and how they’ve responded to it, that’s why we do things like this.”
As well as playing on the field under the lights, Strickland said the athletes were “ecstatic” when they received custom-made football jerseys with their names on the back.
“When they saw their jerseys, they lost it,” he said. “I think that was about as excited as I’ve seen some of those guys.”
Special Olympics International, long at the forefront of raising awareness and funding for persons with special needs, recently teamed up with ESPN on a year-long storytelling initiative focused on tales of “game-changers” towards inclusion. The program has created several short documentaries, all of which have aired on live television.
Some include the story of Jamie Brewer, who landed a role on the Emmy and Golden Globe-winning series “American Horror Story;” La Casa de Carlota, a design studio in Spain that hires artists with intellectual disabilities; and the story of Jamaal Charles, a former NFL running back and National Championship-winner with the University of Texas.
Charles, who spoke at the opening of the Special Olympics in 2015 about his learning disability and his own time as a Special Olympics athlete, was in attendance at Highlander Stadium. He said he was “blown away” by the amount of support he and other Special Olympics athletes – and persons with disabilities in general – have received.
“Special Olympics gave me the confidence to become who I am today,” Charles said. “I love being involved in these events and helping build others’ confidence. We’re all a family.”