The Global Down Syndrome Foundation hosted Ed McCaffrey's Dare to Play Football Camp and Denver Broncos Cheerleaders Dare to Cheer Camp with Orlando Franklin and Malik Jackson on Saturday.
HIGHLANDS RANCH, Colo. --** The scoreboard at the Dare to Play Football Camp showed the score tied at 18 with no time left on the clock Saturday at Valor Christian High School.
But looking at the athletes' smiles and cheers, it was obvious that everyone was celebrating a victory.
The camp offers individuals with Down syndrome the chance to compete on the field, and was established with the help of former Bronco Ed McCaffrey through the Global Down Syndrome Foundation in 2010.
"Unfortunately, there aren't a whole lot of opportunities for individuals with Down syndrome to play team sports," McCaffrey said. "So first and foremost, we're giving them the opportunity to play for the same reasons we all play: To make friends, to have fun, to compete against each other."
The event is far bigger than a practice or quick scrimmage. The teams practiced four or five times this week leading up to the weekend and arrived to the full gameday experience on Saturday. The Denver Broncos Thunderstorm, a group that skydives into Sports Authority Field at Mile High before Bronco home games, performed a pre-game drop-in onto the field. Standing by were Broncos cheerleaders, leading girls with Down syndrome in the Dare to Cheer camp, as well as referees and a full grandstand of fans.
"We're happy our campers brought their skills," McCaffrey said. "I watch a lot of football games throughout the year and this is by far my favorite game to watch. "
Once the opening whistle blew, it was easy to see why McCaffrey enjoys the game so much. The Orange Team and Navy Team traded touchdowns throughout the contest, with several tackle-breaking runs and even a few big hits, bringing oohs and ahhs from the crowd.
"I was surprised," said Broncos defensive end Malik Jackson, a celebrity coach at the camp. "I thought it was two-hand touch, but these kids take it in their own hands."
"But they're all tough. They got right back up, dusted themselves off. I think Foxy (Head Coach John Fox) needs to give them a tryout for the team and see how that goes."
After the Navy Team scored the tying touchdown with less than a minute remaining, the Orange Team responded with a big run up the right side. The ball-carrier came up just short of the goal line as time expired, but nobody was disappointed about the game ending in a tie.
"When you're a professional, it's always business, business, business, so you kind of forget about how fun it can be," Jackson said. "To come out here and see these kids laughing and smiling and getting after it. It really kind of made me go back to my kid days and realize why I'm really doing it."
Jackson was joined by offensive lineman Orlando Franklin and Ring of Fame linebacker Randy Gradishar. Celebrity coaches in years past have included Defensive Coordinator Jack Del Rio, former linebacker Al Wilson and former safety Brian Dawkins.
Several of the campers have worked with each of those coaches, as multi-year veterans who come back ever year for the fun. McCaffrey says their enthusiasm and experience feeds into the group like it would in any team sport.
"They'll jump at the front of the line and show our new campers how to go through the drills, and they set the tempo for the practices and get really excited for the games," he said. "I think that makes it easier for our new campers to assimilate onto the teams and into the game."
Even with all the entertaining action on the field, McCaffrey reminded that the event also has an impact outside the lines.
"There's a lot of negative stereotypes out there about individuals with Down syndrome," McCaffrey said. "We're trying to dispel those and trying to create awareness in the community."
"Just seeing these kids, seeing the smiles on their faces, letting these kids know they're not shunned or anything," Jackson said. "They can come out and they're part of a community. And anything we can do -- so called 'normal people' -- they can do."
"They put smiles on my face probably more than I did them, so it was really awesome."