For the first year, the City of Evanston’s Special Recreation staff is working with members of the Evanston Fire Department (EPD) to hold organized practices for athletes in the Special Olympics Unified Sports of bocce ball and flag football.

Special Recreation Program Manager Leonard Woodson said, “Deputy Chief Brian Scott from the Evanston Fire Department originally asked me to figure out a way for the Evanston Fire department to get involved with my Special Olympics athletes. I figured the Unified sports [program] would be the best way for them to get involved.”

Mr. Woodson also indicated that in addition to the fire department’s involvement, the EPD has been involved with various special recreation programs for a number of years as well. “For a number of years we have had a good relationship with the police department in terms of them coming out to support Special Olympics, so they [have been] involved with doing a lot of fundraising to support Special Olympics. But we have never been able to get involved with the fire department before, so this is sort of a nice turnaround for this year in getting a chance to do that with the fire department.”

Practices began on June 19 and are being held each Sunday through Aug. 7, with flag football played at Leahy Park from 8:30 a.m. until 10 a.m. and bocce ball at Lovelace Park from 10:30 a.m. until noon.

Each flag football practice consists of warm-up time, followed by a variety of different drills, and the last 30 to 40 minutes participants play in scrimmage games.

During running drills, three firefighters line up approximately five feet away from each other, and the athletes line up behind them, and the firefighters teach athletes the proper way to do a hand-off. During passing drills, the firefighters act as the quarterback and the athletes run through three stations so they become accustomed to running different routes like the button hook or fly route.

As for the scrimmages, those consist of a full five-on-five game, where two of the firefighters and three athletes team up to face another team consisting of the same number of athletes and firefighters. “That way, when it comes time for actual competition [in a tournament] the athletes are at least conditioned to play for a full 40 minutes if they need to,” said Mr. Woodson.

For bocce ball, practices consist of going over all the rules with all participants [including firefighters who might not know all of the rules] so everybody is on the same page. Then during a typical session there are three or four courts utilized at one time consisting of either four-on-four team play [typically of two athletes paired up with two firefighters, and a group of four who will play against another set of four]. Then the other courts have singles matches [where a firefighter will play against an athlete] or doubles matches [where two firefighters play against two athletes]. Mr. Woodson noted, “We try to make it so it is one firefighter paired with an athlete playing against another athlete and firefighter.”

Athletes who participated in the eight sessions are eligible to participate in the Area 18 flag football meet on Aug. 21 at Stevenson High School in Lincolnshire. Individuals are required to participate in the practice sessions to be eligible for the meets or tournaments. Athletes are also eligible to participate in the Chicago flag football tournament on Sept. 17 and a meet on Oct. 1. The Chicago flag football tournament is a Unified tournament, and Mr. Woodson hopes to have some of the firefighters who took part in the practices participate in this tournament as well.

Individuals are also eligible to participate in the Special Olympics bocce meet on September 25.  The participants who earn a gold medal during this tournament are the first individuals to qualify to compete at the summer state tournament in Bloomington next June. Registration for all flag football and bocce ball events is $55 per person, and individuals need to be 8 years old and up to be eligible for a medal.

In regard to the police and fire department’s involvement in special recreation activities, Mr. Woodson said, “I want to thank the police department for all they have done for us over the years and now I am glad the firefighters can get involved and have some fun with us too.”