For the past six years, the Colorado Rapids have partnered with Special Olympics Colorado to form a Rapids’ Unified team. The soccer team is made up of individuals both with and without intellectual disabilities, and the athletes range in age from 16 to 25 years old. Potential athletes try out for the team, where soccer skills, ability to follow instructions, and social skills are all taken into account. Once the team is selected, there is an official Signing Day, a “Shop with a Jock” event, and of course - official games vs. other MLS Unified Teams.
Scotty Stephens, 24, and his younger brother Jonny, 18, are two of the athletes that represent the Rapids. Both boys started playing soccer when they were around eight years old, but as Scotty got older “he couldn’t quite keep up with the other kiddos on that team,” his mother, Beth Stephens, explained. “I remembered hearing about SO and I thought maybe that would be a good fit for him.”
Jonny is one of the “partners” on the team, and Beth thinks this experience is great for him because “he understands his brother pretty well, but to get the chance to be around other people with special needs – he’s just growing in compassion and empathy and appreciating everybody for who they are and what they have to contribute.” Jonny said that “I don’t see any difference between them. We’re all just friends and teammates.”
Three Rapids players helped out with the event this year - Zac MacMath, Dillon Powers, and Eric Miller. This was Miller’s second year being involved in the program. “I had never really done something like it before, but it was incredible last year,” he said. “It was so much fun to be a part of - the kids are so awesome and so excited to be a part of it.”
Miller says he thought it would be a great opportunity to get involved, and that it “enhances your sense of gratitude...they’re so excited to get their gear and be in the locker room, which is something that you be desensitized to because we come here every day. You don’t necessarily always think about how nice it is, but to see how excited they are to be here and to play in the stadium, too, it makes it special for us and how lucky we are to be professional soccer players.”
The first game this season for the Unified team was after the Rapids played Columbus Crew on June 3rd. Both teams had several shots and it was a good effort from both sides. In the last minute of the first half, Scotty Stephens received the ball and took the shot right between the opposing goalkeeper’s legs. It was a prefect moment for the Stephens family, with the assist coming from his brother Jonny. It turned out to be the game-winning goal, putting the Rapids over the Crew for the second time that night.
After the game, I asked Scotty what his secret was for scoring the game-winning goal. “You just keep shooting,” he said.
If you want to get involved with the Special Olympics and their wonderful programs, go to SpecialOlympics.org.