The Bad News Bulldogs

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Due to a work conflict, I cancel the team's next practice, and when I tell Teddy, he says, "You're not quitting on me, are you?"

"Of course not," I tell him.

I don't mention that I'm awfully tempted.

My new objective is simply to salvage some pride. Forget about winning. It's time to recalibrate our expectations: If we're merely competitive in our next match, this will be progress. Just a few more weeks of practice, a match in West Palm Beach, and our season will come to a merciful end.

But fate has other plans. On April 21, the day of our rematch against Victory Living, the Bulldogs are doubly blessed. Jason wakes for his alarm clock and will play. A second miracle: Victory Living's best player is a no-show.

I fasten Jason's Velcro shoes and send him onto the court. Like most dominant athletes, Jason tries to do too much. He has a tendency, for instance, to bowl over teammates so he can hit the ball. At the same time, we're winning, and that eases the tension. The dreaded Roker doppelgänger seems suddenly mortal.

The Bulldogs, meanwhile, appear focused. They're getting along. Gustavo's double-fisted overhand is wreaking havoc. Lisa's prayer technique is getting lucky bounces. We get unexpected points from Austin, then Anthony, and even Eddie. My praise from the sidelines now has something approaching conviction.

Yes, I'm proud of my players. I'm actually beaming.

During the third and decisive game, Andrew's serve is punishing Victory Living. Having rattled off ten points in a row and with our team staked to an insurmountable lead, we can afford to show some mercy. So I ask Andrew to serve the ball out.

"No!" he says in his high-pitched voice. "I'm sick of being ashamed." Fair enough.

The Bulldogs win in straight sets.

While the players hug and dance, the jubilation on the sidelines is more restrained. Another volunteer grabs my shoulder, a little too tightly, and with a wry, wincing smile says: "Great. Now we've got to take them to Tampa."

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.

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.

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Thomas Francis