The Bad News Bulldogs

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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.

"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.

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.

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Thomas Francis