Tyrone Day sacrificed his shoes on one play and nearly lost his shorts on another, but his thoughts weren't on his uniform or the good chunk of yardage he'd just ripped off.
"You going to tell my mom I did good?" he asked a nearby coach.
Day, 14, is one of 10 members of the Red Bank Middle/High School flag football team that will defend its gold medal in the Tennessee Special Olympics flag football tournament next weekend at Lighthouse Christian School in Antioch.
"This is competition -- cutthroat," said Kristi Totherow, the school's Special Olympics coach and former coach of the team. "This is not awwwww ... Special Olympics."
The newest Tennessee Special Olympics sport -- first played in 2009 -- is a five-on-five, noncontact game played by both males and females.
"It's the funnest sport I've ever done," said Totherow, who has worked with mentally challenged children for nearly 25 years.
It's serious business for the players, who are members of the school's comprehensive development class and have practiced nearly every weekday morning since Aug. 1 from 8 to 9 on dewy Tom Weathers Field.
Day, in his first year with the team, looks for all the world like a prospect for Coach E.K. Slaughter's Red Bank High School's always-competitive TSSAA football team.
"Me and my brother practice every day -- training, practice, weight room," he said.
After a long run by Day during a scrimmage against members of a high school wellness class last week, Totherow is quick with a compliment.
"You got some moves going on there," she said.
A few plays later, oblivious of his immediate need to be in the huddle, Day volunteers to dry off the football.
"He listens," said Totherow. "He does what we tell him."
Richard Wozniak, a former Little All-American player at Austin Peay State University, is the team's volunteer football coach. He said the rules are different than traditional football and the schemes toned down for the players, but the fun is not lost.
"It's not a job," he said. "It's an enjoyment."
Benji Cordell, a former player and coach at Red Bank, assists Wozniak with defense.
"I couldn't wait to get out here," he said. "I like to see their smiles, the gleam in their eye."
Cordell said he always feels he gets more than he gives.
"I feel selfish when I'm out here," he said.
Special Olympics coordinator Stacy Morrell said the team receives no direct funds, but high school students sell cookies to pay for the team's trip to the tournament.
The one-day trip, Totherow said, costs around $1,000.
"Some of these kids have never stayed in a hotel," she said. "A lot of them have never been out of Chattanooga."
The game itself is likely to offer at least one memorable moment like last year's, Totherow said, when the team got the ball to a player who was unlikely to score at any other time but on this occasion had a green light for the end zone.
Instead of speeding ahead, she said, "he took the ball and posed like he was the Heisman Trophy."
Totherow said she's even put the team "in the hat" for the 2014 national tournament.
It never hurts to try, she said.
Back at the scrimmage, in the shadow of the rising sun that gradually reddens the bluffs of Signal Mountain above the field, the 10 Special Olympics players -- who are generally ages 15-20 -- swap out playing time against members of the wellness class.
After the first play, a long run by Day, Brandon Minton is delighted but not ready to declare victory.
"I don't hear no fat lady singing," he said.
Minton, who chatters throughout the scrimmage, will later enter the game.
"He has more heart than any kid I've ever seen," Totherow said.
DeVonte Clark, 19, and Nick Scott, 13, play for the sheer joy.
"It's fun," said Clark. "You get to compete against other people."
"You get to hang out with your friends," said Scott.
Students in the wellness class, like freshman David Johnson, who is a member of Red Bank High School's football team, also see an upside.
"It's something different," he said. "They're really good, and it challenges us."
The Special Olympics team may have learned something else from their traditional high school counterparts.
When the end of the period nears, the score forgotten, and the wellness class returns to the school, Day is basking in media attention from the high school's student-produced "Mane News." He dutifully ticks off each of the offense's five plays as the camera rolls.
"We're going to make sure we win," he said, the team's second straight Special Olympics tournament gold already in sight. "When it comes, we're going to be ready."
Clint Cooper is the faith editor and a staff writer for the Times Free Press Life section. He also has been an assistant sports editor and Metro staff writer for the newspaper. Prior to the merger between the Chattanooga Free Press and Chattanooga Times in 1999, he was sports news editor for the Chattanooga Free Press, where he was in charge of the day-to-day content of the section and the section’s design. Before becoming sports ...
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