The Bad News Bulldogs

A quest for (Special) Olympic gold, starring one burned-out journalist turned coach and a volleyball team that couldn't spike straight.

The buses were supposed to be here by 6. It's 8. No buses — and no one is surprised. No one is even complaining. "Welcome to the Special Olympics," says a volunteer, grinning.

Spread across this north Fort Lauderdale parking lot is a group of 150 Special Olympics athletes and volunteers — the entire Broward County contingent — all clutching their luggage, waiting patiently to begin their trip to the 2007 Summer Games in Tampa.

I'm the new guy, and no one knows exactly what I'm doing here, least of all me. Three months ago, I volunteered, more or less on a whim, to coach the Tamarac Bulldogs, a volleyball team of mentally challenged players. So far as I can remember, it's my first unselfish act in my 29 years.

I'm not sure what I had hoped to accomplish. Whatever it is, as darkness falls, I find myself thinking: I don't belong here. I belong at home with a tumbler full of Glenlivet and the NBA playoffs on my flat-screen TV.

Because even if I were a brilliant coach (and by now we've accumulated incontrovertible evidence that I'm not), the plain truth of it is that there's no strategy, no pep talk that can elevate this team beyond the brutal fact of its athletic mediocrity. We're not even very good at having fun, which is the standard against which Special Olympics teams are measured. Part of me hopes the buses never show.

And in fact, they don't. Fortunately (or perhaps unfortunately), my fellow volunteers are not so easily deterred. By 9 p.m., they've found a rental car agency with a fleet of minivans. The trip is back on.

The announcement is greeted with cheers among the athletes and the volunteers. If we've survived this setback, we can endure the next one: a long, late-night drive through the Everglades. As I pilot one of my team's two vans onto the highway, I'm startled to discover a tingling sensation in my fingertips. Adrenaline. Giddiness, even. This is no longer just a goodwill mission. It's an adventure. And I'm damned curious to see how it will end.


This all started last December, with a half-hearted e-mail to the volunteer coordinator of Broward County Special Olympics.

I sent the note around the time I began to suspect that I thrive on human misery. It's more than a hunch. After seven years as an investigative reporter, chasing around bad guys and chronicling their misdeeds for public consumption, the thrill is gone.

Worse still, I could feel myself starting to lose my grip on empathy. One day, I interviewed a woman who was losing her little beachside motel and her life's savings because of Hollywood's lust for condo development. The woman began to weep as she told me her story. All I could think was: Great! Real tears!

At that precise moment, I realized I had to do something to restore my compassion. The very word made me recoil, which was exactly the problem.

Having vowed to commit a good deed, Special Olympics was the first organization that sprang to my mind. After all, I love sports. Coaching a group of mentally challenged athletes would, I figure, offer an experience far from the world of con men and crooked politicians.

But the Special Olympics folks were slow to respond to my query, probably because I'd volunteered to coach basketball in the middle of the season. A month passed before I heard back from a volunteer. I blew her off.

That should have been the end of it, except that in mid-January, I received a phone call from a volunteer organizer named Teddy Goldberg. Basketball season was ending, Teddy explained in his thick Brooklynese. But a group in Tamarac needed a volleyball coach.

I had a batch of excuses at the ready. Wildly irregular work hours and a complete lack of prior coaching experience, to name two. But they all sounded flimsy. I couldn't bear to tell Teddy the truth: that my impulse to volunteer had passed and that I may not have been serious about it in the first place. So I said I'd do it.

Gulp.


This coaching gig will require some changes in lifestyle. No more late nights at city commission meetings — we practice Tuesday evening. No more Friday-night benders — we also practice early Saturday morning. Fine. Curbing these vices may add a few years to my life.

Second (and most pressing), I need a refresher course on volleyball, which I haven't played since high school P.E. in the early '90s. For the price of a Jamba Juice smoothie, a friend who coaches high school volleyball teaches me the fundamentals, along with a few drills.

But I'm just as clueless when it comes to working with mentally challenged people. Surely, there's a whole vocabulary I need to learn, while at the same time, there's a vocabulary I must forget — the R-word, for instance.

The key, I suppose, is showing some patience. And that's too bad, because I've never had it. I might get frustrated and commit some horrible faux pas. What if I yell at a player and he or she starts crying? Or quits the team? Then there's the hugging. The commercials for Special Olympics are a medley of hugs, but I've never been a hugger. I generally prefer a solid handshake or, even better, a friendly wave. Will this pose a problem? By the time I arrive at the dimly lit Tamarac Recreation Center for our inaugural practice, I'm pretty much a wreck.

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