YPSILANTI, MI — For a brief moment on Wednesday, Hendrick Manning was the tallest in the room as he was lifted off by members of the Eastern Michigan Eagles soccer team
The 9-year-old from Chelsea had just turned his way for a touchdown, prompting a loud cheer from the dozen or so Eagles around him. Hendrick’s father, Rustin, felt the excitement permeate the EMU practice facility next to Rynearson Stadium.
He and Hendrick are two of the nearly 200 guests who attended Victory Day, a camp hosted by the EMU football team and the Washtenaw County Special Olympics to teach football to children with special needs.
“It’s super cool and fun for the kids, especially with the enthusiasm the team puts into it,” said Rustin Manning at the May 25 event.
Eagles head coach Chris Creighton started Victory Day at EMU when he was hired in 2014. It consists of his players who supervise campers during exercises such as
Similar camps for children with special needs were being held in Southeast Michigan and the Toledo area, and when Creighton heard about this he thought it would be a great event for EMU.
“We jumped at the chance to do it,” he said.
Since then, EMU has had a Victory Day every year except for the last two years due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Fifty campers attended the first year, said Kristi Haywood of Special Olympics of Washtenaw County, and the event has grown thanks to EMU soccer and campers feeding each other with their enthusiasm.
“The enthusiasm of our athletes continues throughout the year. You just can’t wait for that day,” she said. “It’s just such an inclusive event to be able to be with real college football players and see how (EMU) is really pushing this with their athletes, coaches and team. It’s just cool to see how excited they are.”
Creighton is quick to credit its players for organizing the event, emphasizing the “real relationships they are building” with the community. Senior offensive lineman Jake Donnellon knows how important Victory Day is to campers, so it’s a big deal for players, too, he said.
“We have a leadership series and we form groups that do this event as their first chance to lead,” Donnellon said, adding that they learn a lot from campers about having a positive attitude.
“You sometimes hear campers say that the biggest handicap is a bad attitude,” Donnellon said.
One of the coolest moments of the day for Donnellon is seeing campers “really chase after” the tackle drill where the kids jump into sacks to bring them to the ground.
In addition to parents bringing their children to camp, teachers from across Washtenaw County accompany their students. Roy Ellison of the Red Oak Young Adult Program in Ann Arbor said he heard his students talk about when they scored a touchdown for days after camp.
“The students feel so special on this day,” Ellison said.
If groups with special needs children want to do more events with EMU, Creighton said he would say yes immediately. This attitude within the EMU football program makes these children feel safe, Haywood said.
“They don’t get a lot of chances to feel safe around them,” she said. “Even though the world is drawn to inclusion, there is still a long way to go, but events like this make these children feel at home and safe.”
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