When Cherry Creek High lacrosse player Griffin Gharrity created Unified Lacrosse, he never thought he’d get out of it what he did.
“When you see a kid like Andrew, a kid like Conner just come out here and work as hard as they can, it really inspires you to do the same,” said Gharrity, standing on the sidelines of the field he usually plays on.
On this fall day he’s not playing, but coaching along with a handful of other students his age. Those partner athletes assist roughly a dozen athletes with disabilities face off in a scrimmage.
“Our undermining process is to teach lacrosse, but our overall purpose is just to make friendships with kids that otherwise might not meet,” Gharrity said. “What our purpose is, is exactly in the name. Is that, we don’t have a special needs community and a partner athlete, non-special needs community, we just have one community. So unified lacrosse is where we unite.”
It’s helping kids like Andrew Goodspeed, who has Down syndrome have a sense of accomplishment.
“My coaches, I want to say, thank you for helping us,” Andrew said just minutes after proudly celebrating a goal by waving to the crowd and spinning his lacrosse stick.
Andrew's mom watches from the stands, smiling as her son interacts with other kids his age who make it a point to make him feel included.
“These kids that turn out and give up half of their Sunday afternoons, you know, who does that?” Susie said. “It’s unbelievable. And if it wasn’t for that, this close-tight knit community, you know, they might be sitting on the couch, they might be watching TV and instead they are out doing something really helpful and meaningful.”
The Colorado Lacrosse community often looks up to The University of Denver lacrosse team, 2015 national champions. A week after their practice, Unified Lacrosse goes to watch the game. And then halftime comes.
Andrew and the rest of Unified Lacrosse line up outside of the field, in uniform, ready to take the field. DU’s players don’t take halftime to strategize, but to cheer Unified on.
A partner athlete starts to pump up the players. “How many goals you gonna get?” He asks Andrew, who confidently responds with 10 fingers in the air. The gate swings open, the group divides into two teams, and on a field typically reserved for the national champs, in front of a large crowd, the starting whistle blows.
“Here comes Andrew I think he's going to take the faceoff!” Susie said, who admits her son is a bit of a ball hog.
But he’s a polite ball hog, yelling to his friend to pass it to him, and saying “thank you” before turning to the goal and scoring and taking a victory lap full of high fives from DU players.
Special needs athletes take the field at DU
“To see them go out and be able to do this and participate with their friends, it means everything to us. It’s amazing. It’s heartwarming and it’s a beautiful thing,” Susie said.
The partner athletes and the game itself has shown the athletes with disabilities that they can do many of the things their coaches do. They’ve proven that potential is what you make of it and that the potential is often measured by the strength of the community around you.
“They’ve definitely strengthened my belief in that you want to be nice to everyone. You want to respect everyone,” said Griffin. “Just treating them with complete respect, recognizing they are like any other person.”
Now there’s a lesson we can all learn from.