Ohio State Players Enjoy Coaching Special Needs Athletes at Special Skills Football Invitational

By Dan Hope on July 22, 2022 at 5:12 pm
Tommy Eichenberg and Cade Stover talk to campers at the Special Skills Football Invitational.

Out of all the camps that took place at the Woody Hayes Athletic Center this summer, there might not have been one that brought more joy to both camp participants and their instructors than the Special Skills Football Invitational on Friday.

The Special Skills Football Invitational is an annual camp held that brings individuals with special needs to the Woody Hayes Athletic Center for a day of football drills and fun. Approximately 200 individuals of all ages (eight and up) from throughout Ohio participated in the camp, where a group of 100 volunteers that included more than 30 Ohio State football players coached them through a variety of stations where they went through drills not unlike those that the Buckeyes go through in their own practices.

It was a rewarding experience for both the campers and the Buckeyes who had the opportunity to spend time with them. 

As Ohio State tight end Cade Stover saw the smiles on the participants’ faces, he said it reminded him why he came to love football in the first place.

“A lot of times you forget, because it becomes so may become so normal, everyday lifestyle. Then you see people who don’t get to do it every day and how excited they get, and it makes you appreciate what you’re doing more,” Stover said. “I mean, this is what it’s all about, really. The game's always way bigger than us.”

Ohio State left guard Donovan Jackson was seemingly having as much fun as anyone as he coached his campers through his drill station, reminding them not to leave the ball on the ground and instructing them to show off their touchdown dances. He said after the camp that being able to give back at an event like Friday’s “means everything to me.”

“I feel like everyone just loves football, everyone just wants to be around football. So just being out here with everybody, playing the sport we all love to play, it's a great feeling,” Jackson said.

Ohio State kicker Noah Ruggles and punter Jesse Mirco served as quarterbacks for the day, throwing passes to campers who were then cheered on by the likes of Jaxon Smith-Njigba, Jordan Hancock and Cameron Martinez as they ran into the end zone to score touchdowns.

“I had so much fun today,” Ruggles said. “It fired me up. They were catching these touchdowns, celebrating and stuff and I'm like, ‘Okay, I like the energy.’ I mean, they brought the energy and that helps me. It's all good fun.”

Smith-Njigba said it made him happy just to see the campers happy, and he did his part to make sure they enjoyed their time on campus.

“I just love seeing people smile,” Smith-Njigba said. “So if you can crack a little joke or something or just tell them they're doing an awesome job, they take that to heart. And it's just a special experience. It's a special place that I'm in right now just to lift people up, and it's an awesome opportunity. I'm happy I'm here right now.”

Martinez said he has been taught about the importance of giving back since he was a child, so it was important to him to make time to be at the camp on Friday.

“To me, it's a blessing,” Martinez said. “My mom always kind of harped on it, it's always important to give back. These are the fans and the people that always show love and support on Saturdays. It’s great that I can be out there and just have a good time.”

Martinez said he was impressed by how the campers performed, too.

“I’m actually finding a lot of athletes out here,” Martinez said. “A lot of people are looking real good, catching the ball and doing things like that. So we’ve been having a lot of fun.”

The Buckeyes had little trouble bonding with their visitors on Friday, and Stover believes that speaks to how the game of football brings people together across all walks of life.

“I don't think it really matters how you are, how you act, what you think like, what you look like. If you love the game of football, you're gonna find a way to learn to love it,” Stover said. “You’ve just got to find a way for kids to learn and grab onto it, and that’s what we’re trying to do.”

Smith-Njigba shared a similar sentiment.

“Sports just bring many cultures, many different people together, and to have this camp out here and just me helping and some of the Buckeyes, it’s an awesome opportunity,” Smith-Njigba said.

Stover said he thought about the experiences he would want his child to have if he had a child with special needs. And that’s exactly why Stover volunteered his time to help coach the camp on Friday.

“For me, if these were my kids, I’d want my kids to have people out here coaching them to look up to and stuff. So it's just really special to me, and I think the kids like it a lot,” Stover said. “Seeing all the enthusiasm, how excited these kids really are to be here to be a part of this, it just makes you really appreciate where you're at and what you do.”

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