For players on the Challenger football team, the game truly isn’t about winning; it’s about the opportunity to play and have fun.
Coached by Joe Cobian of Ramona, the Challenger team is a division of Pop Warner and offers a flag football and cheerleading program for students with special needs. Open to students ages 5-18 with physical or mental disabilities, the program encourages teamwork and offers the chance for these students to play football in a non-competitive, organized setting.
The team played its last game of the season during the Packwood Bowl held at Ramona’s Bulldawg Stadium.
Although the team includes children from such North County communities as Escondido, San Marcos, Encinitas, Fallbrook and Vista, four of the players, a cheerleader, several coaches, and many team “buddies” are from Ramona. The players from Ramona are Brent Krohne, Anthony Bishop, Nicholas Bishop and Joshua Guzman.
After the bowl game, Nicholas Bishop was excited about a touchdown he scored on a kick return. His brother Anthony, who plays as a quarterback and also scored, said he likes running the ball.
Brent Krohne was thrilled with his four touchdowns.
“When these kids score, their faces light up. It’s a real neat experience to see,” said Cobian.
The Challenger team is sponsored by Palomar Conference Pop Warner. Cobian, a commissioner with the conference, grew up in Ramona and played football. He was asked by the conference last year to help coach the team.
“One of the reasons I did it was to get Josh involved,” Cobian said, referring to his nephew, Joshua Guzman, who has cerebral palsy and is confined to a wheelchair.
Describing his experience last year as a positive one, Cobian said, “It was easy to come back out here. I enjoyed it so much, I got knee-deep in it.”
This year the Challenger team had 12 players, who were split into two teams to play against each other for about an hour on Saturdays in the fall, often playing at Kit Carson Park in Escondido.
The players are paired with “buddies” who can assist them. If a player is in a wheelchair, the buddy pushes the wheelchair fast enough to keep up with the play. The buddies are often parents, brothers, uncles, students or teenagers from Ramona High School who play football. Cobian said that sometimes special needs adults help referee and spot the ball.
“I love football,” said Cobian. “When I’m out there with these kids, everyone is so gracious.”
If someone hasn’t scored in a game, the other players will let him score, Cobian said. “That’s good sportsmanship.”
Cobian hopes to see the program increase in size.
“What we would like to do is build more of a group in the county,” he said.
Assisting Cobian is Ben Narramore, also a commissioner with the Palomar conference and a Ramona resident. Narramore’s wife Kim coaches the cheer team, which had two girls this year, Krystina Hennessey and 17-year-old Alexis Booth of Ramona, who has been involved in other cheer programs.
The two cheerleaders competed at the Palomar Cheer Competition in October at the Cox arena.
Kim Narramore said they would like to get more special needs girls involved in the program. She said part of the issue is just “getting the word out that it’s just for fun.”
The cheerleaders’ two buddies from Ramona, ninth-grader Kelsey Ketchem and seventh-grader Lily Fortunato, got up every Saturday morning this fall and taught cheers to the girls on the Challenger team, said Narramore.
Also helping the Challenger team is Nichole Booth, Alexis’ mother, as assistant cheer coach. Cobian’s wife Missy serves as team mom, and his children, Katie and Marco, are buddies to the players. Other buddies are Jordan Narramore, Tanner Triplett and Jake Triplett, all from Ramona.
The Challenger team’s next season will begin in early August 2010.