In just over a week, the Ohio State football team will be back on the fields at the Woody Hayes Athletic Center to start its preseason camp, but on Thursday, the Buckeyes hosted another group of athletes for their own opportunity to play football at Ohio State for a day.
Approximately 250 individuals from across the state of Ohio converged in Columbus on Thursday for the Special Skills Football Invitational, a camp that invites special needs athletes of all ages to participate in a variety of football drills – with guidance from Ohio State’s own football players and coaches along the way.
Ohio State assistant strength and conditioning coaches Niko Palazeti and Chris Fenelon, tight end Jeremy Ruckert, safety Jordan Fuller and long snapper Roen McCullough kicked off the camp by leading the participants through quick cals.
Running back Master Teague, wide receiver Kamryn Babb, tight end Derrick Malone, defensive tackle Zaid Hamdan, linebacker Baron Browning, punter Drue Chrisman, wide receivers coach Brian Hartline, quality control coaches Corey Dennis and Keenan Bailey and former Ohio State linebacker and assistant strength and conditioning coach Anthony Schlegel were also among those on hand to help lead drills on Thursday, which was also the final day of summer workouts for the Buckeyes before they start fall camp next Friday, Aug. 2.
The invitational has been held annually since 2013 and at the Woody Hayes Athletic Center since 2015, first with the blessing of former Ohio State football coach Urban Meyer and now with continued support from new head coach Ryan Day, along with support from the Columbus-based Five Strong Foundation and the Ohio chapter of the NFL Alumni Association.
“I’m extremely impressed and excited that Coach Day has elected to keep this on as one of their outreach programs,” said Steve Weaver, the founder of the invitational. “Him coming in, all the nuances that he has this year, and he said yes to my camp, means the world, especially to the population that we’re working with.”
The goal behind the Special Skills Football Invitational, Weaver said, is to break down barriers and to give the participating athletes an opportunity to be an Ohio State football player for a day while also showing others what they are capable of doing.
“We’re changing that perception of what these individuals and athletes can do, and you can see in the football players’ eyes, ‘Wow, this guy can catch, he can throw, he’s pulling a sled,’” Weaver said. “Now they’ve got a little bit of respect that these athletes can do the same thing that they’re doing, and that’s what this is all about.”
Ruckert, who also volunteered at the camp last year, was on hand for the entire two-hour event – he took on the responsibility of running the vertical jump station – and said he wouldn’t have missed it.
“This is one of the best days of the year,” Ruckert said. “They’ve got a ton of energy, and I’ve always enjoyed dealing with this type of stuff and putting a smile on the kids’ faces because they just reflect it right back on you. Every time they come out here, they got smiles, they’re excited to meet you and play and exercise and I just think it’s a great event.
“They’re coming up to me thinking that I’m making their day and always wanting to take pictures and give me hugs, and it’s just the complete opposite. I’m coming out here to just hang out with them and just truly show them that I’m blessed to be out here and I’m grateful for the opportunities I have and every time I get to meet them, it just brings up my spirits and brightens my day automatically.”
Fuller, who was recently nominated for the AFCA Good Works Team in recognition of his community outreach efforts, said he believes it is “really important” to take every opportunity he can to give back – especially to Ohio State fans, as many of the athletes who participated in Thursday’s camp are.
“These people support us on our Saturdays and even on our worst days and our best days, so just spending a little time with them, it’s not asking for much,” Fuller said. “It’s so much fun just being out there, giving back and seeing the smiles.”
Fuller said he and his teammates draw motivation to get involved in the community from Day, too, by seeing how their head coach has gotten involved in the community – specifically with his efforts as an advocate for mental health.
“If you care about something, just try to do the best you can to go support that thing, and that’s what we see from Coach Day, so I try to kind of model that,” Fuller said.
Thursday's football camp is just one of several invitationals that Special Skills Sports is set to host this year. On Aug. 22, the Special Skills Baseball and Softball Invitational – with support from the Ohio State baseball program – will be held at the Bo Jackson Elite Sports Facility in Columbus. On Sept. 3, the Special Skills Tennis Invitational will be held in Mason, Ohio. The Special Skills Soccer Invitational, with support from the Columbus Crew, will be held at the Superkick Sports Complex on Sept. 12, while the Special Skills Basketball Invitational will be held in October – exact date still to be determined – in conjunction with the Ohio State basketball teams at Value City Arena.