In the fall of 2004, we dreamed of a league where everyone plays, everyone scores and everyone wins for our special needs friends and after seeing an ESPN segment on baseball for those with a variety of medical, developmental and intellectual issues, we went to West University Little League President Hugh Tanner and pitched the idea to start a program in our community. With WULL’s blessing, Challenger Baseball began!
Under cloudless blue skies with the sun shining almost as brightly as the smiles of over 1100 players, West University Little Leaguers stormed the beautifully manicured Wallin Field to start their 56th season of play in front of bleachers filled with proud parents, grandparents and fans. This 2005 season proved to be more special than any previous season thanks the addition of the Challenger Division for children with intellectual and/or developmental differences. After an invocation and the singing of God Bless America, the forty-eight Challenger players were wheeled, carried or otherwise assisted on to the platform where their division was announced for the very first time. The cheers could be heard for miles around and the sheer joy on the faces of all was enough to bring tears to the eyes of even the toughest in the crowd. Players removed their colorful team hats as Former First Lady Barbara Bush proudly held her hand across her heart and said the Pledge of Allegiance with dog Millie at her side. Then a teenager, Stephanie Styles, belted out our National Anthem and parents and children alike shouted with pride. After a heart warming speech by Bronze Star winner Major Bill Davis about his time in Iraq and what it means to serve our country, he and Mrs. Bush threw out first pitches along side one Challenger player from each of the four newly established teams. Stephen D. Keener, Little League International President & CEO, watched and made mental notes about this inaugural season that has gone down in the history of baseball as one of West U Little League’s very finest moments. With the smells of hot dogs, pizza, and other concession stand food mixing with that of well worn leather and bags full of cleats and dirty socks, the baseball field and season once again, took on a life of its own. The field is a magical place where players become heroes to their teammates and proud parents watch as their children play. This year, with the Challenger players, it was even more magical and meaningful as childhood fantasies of many became reality.
With the newly built Rotary Field House making the backdrop perfect, Challenger Baseball games started a Sunday tradition for many special children to play baseball instead of just watching from behind the fences as their siblings rounded the bases or their idols played games on television. With balls flying everywhere and the crack of the a bat, quick good luck hugs from many a mom and instructions from the coaches, 48 Challenger players on four teams took to the fields with Buddies at their sides and the games got underway. Local businesses donated snacks, treats and other baseball items so that the Challenger players could experience baseball just as those who play in the regular divisions each season. Baseball Buddies add a caring dimension to the game as they arrive early to help set-up then assist the Challenger players bat, take their base, play in the field and most importantly, cross home plate! Every child bats and the final score is always a tie teaching lessons of sportsmanship and friendship above all else.
More traditions started that year with a Season End Celebration where each player receive his/her coveted trophy and the entire family enjoys a delicious meal. We truly thought that life just didn’t get any better than this until a few weeks later when a call came from Stephen Keener and the White House inviting WULL’s Challenger Division to send a team of twelve to play in the South Lawn Game on July 24, 2005. This marked the first time that a Texas team was invited to play and only the fifth game for Challenger players ever. Knowing that we had hit a grand slam with the invitation, everyone went to work and again, donors came through to support the South Lawn Sluggers with airline tickets for the players and their parents, hotel rooms for each family, financial support for meals as well as game tickets from the Astros/MLB for a game against the Washington Nationals. Names were drawn and players and buddies were notified then a practice game was held. With less than a week to finish all the details, the group of 100 WULL Challenger players, Baseball Buddies, families, the Mayor of West U, neighborhood and league dignitaries all headed to Washington, DC for the opportunity of a lifetime! With much press and many of our players becoming “stars” in their own right, we packed our bags and headed to DC.
Upon arrival, everyone changed into Challenger White House South Lawn Game t-shirts, boarded buses, and headed to the RFK Stadium for the Astros vs. the Nationals game. On Sunday morning, KPMG hosted a brunch at ESPN Zone and then the WULL group headed to the White House for a private tour. Families and friends posed in the Oval Office, ballroom, dining rooms, Red Room, Blue Room, and even the hallways as pictures were snapped before exiting into the colorful garden that was blooming with lovely flowers and perfectly groomed grounds.
Parents and fans took their places in the bleachers as the players, buddies and coaches entered the regulation little league field that had been chalked and fenced off, complete with a backstop sporting a banner for each the WULL and Williamsport, PA Challenger teams on the South Lawn. With the red, white and blue of old Glory waving as Boy Scouts presented the flags, all stood for the Pledge of Allegiance and National Anthem followed by the Little League Pledge that speaks of always doing one’s best and that is exactly what each child did as they played on the South Lawn. With TV cameras rolling, the teams plus Third Base Coach for the Day, Hall of Famer (2002) Ozzie Smith, First Base Coach for the Day, Hall of Famer (2004) Paul Molitor, and Astros Pitcher Andy Pettitte who assisted at the plate were introduced. Former Angels player Pete Cimino and Former American League Umpire Steve Palermo served as Honorary Commissioners of the Day, as well.
Over the sound system came a phrase that most have only heard on the radio or TV… “Please rise for the President of the United States of America.” Even those who are usually wheelchair bound, tried their best to stand to honor President George W. Bush and First Lady Laura Bush as they entered the field. President Bush smiled and warmly greeted the crowd, welcomed the team from Williamsport, PA then said, “And now, from the great state of Texas…West University Little League!”. With shouts and cheers and lots of clapping, President Bush then placed a ball on the tee and said, “Let’s play ball” as First Lady Laura Bush and a cast of friends, family, secret service personnel, guards and assorted fans cheered from the makeshift bleachers. Both teams were winners on that beautiful Sunday afternoon as each player had a hit and the game ended with a grand slam to help celebrate the successes for these special children and the 15th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act that was signed into law on July 26, 1990.
With the game complete and all being declared winners, President Bush spent time with each player and his/her buddy, giving them a signed baseball complete with the presidential seal. More cameras flashed as the children beamed with pride standing next to the President of the United States of America!
To complete the day, White House chefs who are much more comfortable preparing five course meals for kings and queens, grilled hot dogs and baked cookies to the delight of the players and their buddies. People lingered and marveled at the fact that they were actually picnicking on the South Lawn of the White House. With thank yous and good-byes being said, the sun began to sink over the dome of the White House and families gathered their things and their exhausted children as they headed back to the buses. Again, thinking all the while, it can’t get any better than this! We truly are blessed to live in a country where all have the opportunity to succeed regardless of ability or disability, financial status or lack there of, race, color, creed, religion. Here in America, we are all truly equal and opportunities surround us, waiting to be taken advantage of. It is our job to make the most of each opportunity or challenge, learn from it and grow into citizens who give back to our communities when so much has been given to us. That has certainly been proven from our first pitch of 2005 by Mrs. Barbara Bush on our WULL fields all the way to the White House South Lawn Game…opportunities and challenges have given us the gift of friendship with children and families we might never have known. The phrase “No Place Like Home” has taken on a whole new meaning as strangers have become not only teammates but also friends and WULL has become home to all. The Challenger parents continue to be thankful but we, the volunteers and buddies, are the ones who’ve truly benefited. We have learned compassion and acceptance and these special children who “danced” into our lives will remain in our hearts forever, each of us being better for having known them. In the words of one ten-year old baseball buddy, “It just makes my heart feel good to help my little buddy each week!” and that says it all!
WULL Challenger Division has grown to more than 150 players on eight teams and we still enjoy the tradition of Sunday games from March till May each spring. Since 2005, Challenger Baseball teams have been invited to play at the Little League World Series in Williamsport, PA, Houston Astros Foundation Minute Maid Tournament and multiple times at the Texas State All Star Tournament and the Waco Challenger Jamboree.
In 2006, in order to provide sports opportunities year-round for our friends with special needs, Challenger Football & Cheerleading began as a separate 501 (c) 3. The first league of its kind in the country, the inaugural Challenger Football game was played at Rice University with the Strake Jesuit College Preparatory School Crusader Football Team as Buddies. In 2007, Rice University Head Coach David Bailiff decided his team should participate so the Owls stepped in as buddies and the Strake Jesuit
Crusaders Football Team hosted a game on their home turf, as well. In 2008, across town rival, St. Thomas High School Eagles also hosted and in 2009, Episcopal High School Knights and the Southwest Football League joined in hosting, too. The tradition continues now with five football games each fall.
In 2011, Strake Jesuit and St. Thomas High School teamed up to start Challenger Basketball. Additionally, Episcopal High School and St. Agnes Academy co-hosted in 2012 and now Strake Jesuit and sister school St. Agnes Academy, St. Thomas and sister schools Duchesne Academy and Incarnate Word Academy + Episcopal High School men’s and women’s teams join forces to host three Challenger Basketball games each winter.
Challenger Sports has grown tremendously since 2005 and each Challenger player is very special to us. We have helped other little leagues from our own District 16 to leagues throughout the country as they, too, form Challenger programs and change lives. This program helps the Challengers learn to play the games all kids love but more importantly, the buddies have become mentors and friends to their Challenger players who look up to them. Buddies have learned inclusion, kindness, patience, compassion, outreach and so much more from their Challenger friends. Challengers and Buddies help teach each other learn that we all have our gifts to give and our precious Challengers certainly touch our lives as we all learn to work as a team, exhibit good sportsmanship and be inclusive of those who have needs different from our own.
Challenger Sports…where everyone plays, everyone scores and everyone wins!