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.

"You made it!" Teddy says. He tells me the practice schedule but neglects to mention that the season is three months long, which is fortunate, as it prevents me from quitting on the spot.

Upon meeting the players, I am surprised to find that they're mostly in their 20s. Based on all those huggy commercials, I'd expected kids — teenagers or younger. But these are adults. A few of them smoke. A few more cuss. Fine, we'll be the edgy Special Olympics team.

If anything, these athletes might be a little too cool. I'd expected a gushing, enthusiastic group — again, like the commercials. The sullen expressions of the players standing in the gymnasium suggest they'd been dragged here by their parents.

Lisa and the other Bulldogs had long faces after being whipped on day one.
Lisa and the other Bulldogs had long faces after being whipped on day one.
Eddie is mobbed by fans at opening ceremonies.
Eddie is mobbed by fans at opening ceremonies.

Nor do most of them look or act like they have intellectual disabilities. I can't detect it in their speech, really. Most seem to be as physically coordinated as the average person. I wonder whether I've lucked into a bunch of ringers.

This notion is dispelled the moment we move from the drills — which go quite well — to a practice match. At this point, the players abandon textbook technique and revert to whatever form feels most natural. Or they lose interest in playing, preferring to stand and watch. Or they harass a teammate.

Normally, this would suggest a team in need of discipline. But channeling Bobby Knight isn't going to work with this squad. They're not willfully disobedient. They simply have disabilities that express themselves in subtle ways — behaviorally, socially, and mentally. This makes it hard for them to apply a learned skill or cooperate with teammates or listen to a new (and still-uncertain) coach.

The trick is going to be to locate each player's individual talents and focus on grooming those. Then I'll just have to pray they come together as a team. Or at least that they stop yelling at one another.

It quickly becomes clear that my most physically gifted player is Jason. He's a burly six-foot-two and 250 pounds, but even at age 32, he's prone to juvenile behavior. Example: He interrupts the first practice by chasing after his teammates with a booger dangling from his nose.

Andrew, age 26, from Coral Springs, wouldn't seem to be Special Olympics material — he knows enough Japanese to be a fan of J-Pop. At the same time, he struggles with the simplest financial transactions — ironic, given that his father is an accountant.

Andrew seems suspicious of a stranger who would volunteer to coach him. Despite my earnest demeanor, he seems to know I come from a world where Special Olympics is a punch line. In the first few practices, he avoids eye contact, ignores praise and constructive criticism alike, and encourages his best friend on the team, Austin, to misbehave.

Austin is also from Coral Springs. He's an echo of Andrew's personality — literally. The moment after Andrew speaks, Austin says the exact same thing. If Andrew isn't hungry, then Austin isn't eating either. Austin doesn't speak Japanese, but because Andrew listens to J-Pop, Austin listens to it too. When Andrew laughs after Austin's serve hits the gymnasium ceiling, it's impossible to persuade Austin not to do the same thing every time.

When the ball comes his way, Austin's habit is to swing across his body — as though the ball were a mosquito. "Two hands" becomes my refrain, but Austin never pays attention — until after about six weeks of practice, I hear Andrew bark the same order. "Two hands," answers Austin, nodding. "Yeah!" Then he starts doing it. Somehow, I've won over Andrew and, with him, Austin.

Lisa is a 28-year-old from Boca Raton with a sarcastic streak and a sincere, burning infatuation with David Hasselhoff. She seems more determined than the others to improve her volleyball game, but she still refuses to budge from her method of clasping her hands together — as if praying — to punch at the ball. After weeks of stopping practice to teach her the proper form for bumping and setting, I realize the instruction is only hurting her confidence.

So Lisa gets her way, and in these rare instances where her prayer technique scores a point, she whirls to say, "See?" But when she misses, she bows her head and says "I suck!" under her breath.

Kerri is Lisa's best friend on the team. Her intensity is infectious, if occasionally excessive. When another player blunders, Kerri vents her frustration, and her outbursts affect the confidence of players like Lisa.

Gustavo's powers of attention are sporadic, but the lanky 19-year-old can hit a leaping two-handed spike for winners all over the court. He just can't hit a ball lower than his shoulder. Also, at practice, he tends to shoot the volleyball at the basketball hoop, as if he's forgotten which sport he'd come to the gym to practice.

Then there's Eddie Barbanell. Eddie isn't a great volleyball player, but he leads the league in photo ops after his star-making turn in The Ringer, a 2005 Farrelly brothers comedy in which Johnny Knoxville's character tries to fix the Special Olympics. Eddie misses the first several practices because he's wrapping a short film called Sky Squad Eagle Eight, about a group of mentally challenged superheroes.

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