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.

Of course, winning provides only temporary anodyne to chronic ills. As the team reconvenes for another month of practices, the personalities are colliding and the injuries are accumulating.

During a practice two days before we're to leave for Tampa, Jason walks off the court. He blames a knee injury, but it's clear that after a half hour, he's grown sick of playing. This insubordination attracts a follower, Anthony, and without them, we don't have enough for a game — especially since Andrew is sidelined with a bad back.

In West Palm, the team gets an unexpected boost from Anthony.
In West Palm, the team gets an unexpected boost from Anthony.
Game two with Brevard leads to another lopsided score.
Game two with Brevard leads to another lopsided score.

No amount of begging will budge them. So I try tough love. I tell Jason, in a stern voice, that he has to practice or he won't be allowed to travel with the team to Tampa.

"Good!" Jason says. "I don't want to go to Tampa anyway."

Lisa declares that the team doesn't need Jason — a shock to his pride. As they argue, Lisa announces that if Jason plays, she will not. When she storms out of the gym in tears, Kerri follows.

So now I've got a full-blown mutiny on my hands. Fortunately, Teddy intervenes and, with his booming voice, scares the players into submission. They all shuffle back to the court, and I try to cheer them through another 15 minutes, breaking up the practice before another conflict can bloom. By the session's end, I'm not sure this team will stay intact long enough to reach Tampa as a team.

Then there's the distraction that comes from having a movie star on the team. Eddie really enjoys his celebrity, rarely missing an opportunity to remind the other players of his special status. And this tends to cause the team to gang up on him. For me and the other volunteers, it's hard to pick a side.

After all, Eddie really has been a hero to people with intellectual disabilities. I see it everywhere I go with the team. Outside the gym at one of our matches, for instance, I spot a mentally challenged boy by himself in the hallway, rehearsing his approach. "Hello, Eddie. Saw you in The Ringer..."

Eddie shines in that movie because he's the one actor who seems not remotely self-conscious. He says words emphatically, with a forceful pitch perfectly suited to mock rage or bewilderment. And though he's bashful about how his eyes cross, he's turned that into another weapon in his comedy arsenal.

For people with Down syndrome, the laughter of strangers is cruel, even traumatic. Eddie actually invites the laughter — only on his own terms. People laugh with Eddie, not at him.

Sadly, not even Special Olympics gives points for charisma. When we get to Tampa, we'll have to get by on skill, far more of it than we've demonstrated so far. Otherwise, my Bulldogs will endure a new round of humiliation.

Which brings us back to the Friday night last month, when we were supposed to ride those buses to glory. As you'll recall, the buses never showed, so we had to rent minivans.

Fortunately for the Tamarac Bulldogs, our first match isn't till 2 p.m. Saturday. So we stay at a local Hampton Inn, hoping to catch some sleep before making the cross-state trek the next morning.

Michelle Leonardo, Kerri's mom, shares a room with her daughter and Lisa. Manny Nunez, a caregiver at the Coral Springs group home, rooms with Jason. Austin and Andrew are rooming with Bob Cohen, Andrew's father. That leaves me with Eddie and Anthony, who, in their 25 years as best friends, have honed a sophisticated comic repartee. "You better not snore," Eddie warns Anthony. "Or else you'll wake up to my farteroonies."

Instead, it's Eddie who's up late. At 12:30 a.m., I find him alone in the Hampton Inn lobby, pecking away at a computer. "I'm e-mailing Johnny Knoxville," he says by way of explanation.

"You guys e-mail?" I ask.

"I do," he answers.

The next morning, the big question is whether the same Tamarac Bulldogs who were stranded for several hours in a parking lot can now be awakened, assembled, and moved across Florida in time for our match.

Jason could definitely be a problem. His monolithic form never moves until it's received its full portion of rest. Michelle Leonardo, expecting resistance, arms herself accordingly. A cup of coffee is poised; for the moment, Jason's jaws can be pried open. Two others are ready to pull at his bed sheets and tug at his hands and feet — or if all else fails, douse him with water. All that, plus a pack of Marlboro Reds, is just enough stimulation to make him upright and ambulatory for the walk to Michelle's van.

In my minivan, the adversary is smaller but no less formidable. His name is Michael, and he's not even a member of the Bulldogs. He's here because last night, in a flourish of generosity, our team agreed to let him ride with us, to allay his mother's fears about his riding in a car at night with a drowsy driver.

Michael, who looks about 10 years old, climbs into the back seat next to Eddie and Anthony. He doesn't talk much, but his head and arms sway constantly, like tree branches in a strong wind. These motions are related, of course, to Michael's disability, but that doesn't make it any easier for Eddie and Anthony to endure. From the back, they howl, "Coach Tom, make Michael stop it." I feel guilty about scolding the kid, who seems to think Eddie and Anthony are playing with him. He sticks his tongue out and spits a tiny shower of saliva their way.

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