The Bad News Bulldogs

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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.

Near Naples, we stop at a BP station. Michael wanders to the snack counter, helps himself to a hot dog and a soda, then wanders out without paying. Gustavo, meanwhile, is having trouble understanding why the clerk won't accept a five-dollar bill for the nine dollars' worth of sandwiches he's buying. Michelle makes up the difference, but before we leave, she spots mold on Gustavo's sandwich and goes back for a refund. At this rate, we're likely to forfeit our first match.

We speed up I-75 and arrive with an hour to spare. The team is groggy, but each member is accounted for and uniformed, waiting in a University of South Florida gymnasium for their turn on the court. A few minutes after 2, a wild-eyed organizer informs us we're waiting in the wrong gym. We sprint outside to the adjacent gym, arriving moments before the referees declare a forfeit.

It hardly matters. Our opponent is from Brevard County, an all-star team formed by cobbling together the best players in its Special Olympics volleyball circuit. Aptly named the Brevard Spikers, the team has twin towers who can soar above the net, complemented by shorter, quicker players who show impeccable technique in their bumps and sets. Even their satin jerseys and matching shorts make us self-conscious — the Bulldogs wear matching cotton T-shirts with generic black shorts.

Behind Jason's serve, we win the first several points, but after the Spikers break him, they go on a furious rally. In a flash, the first game is over. We've lost, 25-9.

The next game, Jason decides to take on the Spikers by himself. He flies all over the court, knocking over teammates in a desperate effort to swat the ball back. Against Victory Living, the rallies rarely lasted beyond a few hits. Now, the ball's flying back and forth six, seven times per point — until finally the Bulldogs can no longer keep up. We lose the second game 25-10.

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Thomas Francis