Collegiate athletes spend so much time in high-level training that they sometimes lose track of how difficult those things can be for those who don’t have that gift.
Mike Arnold (center) rounds the bases with Georgia athletes during the Home Runs for Hometown Rivals Special Olympics baseball game at Foley Field on Monday in Athens.
Georgia student-athletes and Clarke County’s special-needs athletes got together on Monday at Foley Field and exchanged notes on how to run, jump and throw in the fourth annual Home Runs for Hometown Rivals charity baseball game to benefit the Special Olympics.
“It’s great and it’s an awesome opportunity,” Georgia football player Chris Conley said. “It really lets you know how blessed you are when you come out here. It also makes these kids’ days. A lot of them can’t do a lot of the things we as athletes can do, and they really appreciate it. We get to come out here and we get to put smiles on these kids’ faces. It means a lot for us. It speaks volumes about the character of UGA’s athletes, but it also helps us maybe more than it helps them. It makes us really appreciate what we have and it gives us something to work for whenever we’re in season and we’re in the grind.”
About 188 people from the University of Georgia Athletic Association, mostly athletes from multiple sports, participated in Monday’s game. Clarke County Special Olympics brought in about 65 special-needs athletes to take part.
“It’s really cool,” Special Olympics at UGA co-president Victoria Brickenden said. “Our kids look up so much to these athletes. UGA and Athens is everything to them. They grow up and watch all the sports. That gives them something they can really connect with. It’s cool because the kids get to come out and hang out with people who they look up to as superstars.”
Foley Field has hosted the charity baseball game for four years. This year the event caught a break with the weather because rain washed out the Georgia-Arkansas Southeastern Conference baseball game the day before, and the clouds that hung over Athens most of Monday cleared in time for the game.
“It’s really cool to get out and see how much fun the kids have just playing around on our field,” Georgia baseball player Dylan Cole said. “We all get to go out on the field with the kids and just have fun. That’s a great feeling to see the smiles on their faces and how much they enjoy it. It makes you grateful and makes you appreciate everything you take for granted. It’s cool because they look up to you. It’s an experience you’re not going to get at any other time.”
The charity baseball game can also be a training ground for the Georgia athletes’ futures. Georgia women’s basketball player Erika Ford plans to make a career in special-needs education after she graduates and enjoyed a chance to bring sports and school together.
“It’s just amazing to spend time with these kids,” Ford said. “They’re awesome. A lot of people just don’t get a chance to get to know them but they are just amazing. The opportunity is great because you don’t really get the chance to do this kind of stuff very often. I just love kids and I really want to help kids that actually need help. I really enjoy being around them. A lot of people just don’t understand but for some reason it just makes me happy.”
The special-needs athletes were divided into teams representing East Athens and West Athens. The athletes came from most if not all of the Clarke County schools and each participant had a chance to swing a bat, hit a ball and circle the bases.
“The special athletes are from Athens, so they absolutely love the UGA athletes,” Special Olympics at UGA co-president Victoria Illnick said. “They watch these UGA athletes on TV all the time. The go to the games and watch them and they just love them. It’s good for our kids to get a chance to hang out with them and it’s good for us too because the UGA athletes draw a crowd. It’s good to see the special athletes and the UGA athletes come together and play a game together and have a lot of fun.”
The charity baseball game comes at a good time for the Georgia athletes before they disperse. Georgia’s spring semester ended on Monday and final exams start on Wednesday.
“It’s a really fun evening and a great event,” said Georgia tennis player Kate Fuller, who participated in her third Home Runs for Hometown Rivals event on Monday. “It’s a great time for us and for the kids. It gives us some perspective as well. We get a chance to hang out with kids from Clarke Central and Cedar Shoals. We really take what we do for granted sometimes and it’s nice to take a break and give back that time. We realize how blessed and lucky we are to get to do what we do every day out here at UGA.”