May 04, 2015

‘Champs League’ Embraces Ballplayers with Special Needs

By M. Mikayla Martinez
For Reporting Texas

Noah Risk fights to get to the other side of the basketball court, moving as fast as he can with his walker.

Noah has cerebral palsy. Before enrolling him in the West Austin Youth Association’s Champs League, Nancy Risk was skeptical of her 10-year-old son’s ability to participate in basketball. Then she found Sammie Joseph.

“Do you think that he could participate?” Risk asked Joseph, the director of Champs League.

“I don’t think,” he replied. “I know.”

A Champs League participant holds a trophy on . Photo by

Noah Risk proudly holds his trophy, given to each Champs League player after the last practice of the semester. Photo by M. Mikayla Martinez/Reporting Texas

The Champs League started nine years ago when Joseph, a West Austin coach since 1972, was in charge of a Little League team. One of his players had a brother with Down syndrome whom the team let play in practices and scrimmages. The boys’ father told Joseph how he wished there was a league specifically for ballplayers with special needs.

Joseph made it happen.

Now, the Champs League roster averages 25 players per session, with each session lasting four to eight weeks in the fall and spring. The league gives children ages 4 to 18 an opportunity to experience sports such as volleyball, basketball, bowling, flag football, T-ball and soccer.

“We thought it was a good name to call it to help these kids understand that they can do the same thing as everybody else,” Joseph said. “To be a champion you don’t have to hit the ball over the fence, run for a touchdown, or spike a volleyball. You just have to get out there and give your best effort. You do that, and you’re a champion.”

When building the league, Joseph wanted players to have “buddies” the same age as them. Most of the buddies are in sixth through ninth grade and come from all over Austin, usually by word of mouth. They attend buddy orientation before each session and commit to the weekly practices.

“Their role is to be a mentor, to encourage the player, instill confidence and develop a friendship with the players,” Joseph said. “It helps them understand that there’s another side to life, to helping people. … It makes them more aware of kids at their school, more sensitive to their needs. To be a better friend to them, better buddy to them.”

Kathleen Shea, a St. Michael’s Catholic Academy junior and six-year buddy, handles the sign-in and helps new buddies adjust to and understand the emotions and attitudes of the players.

She doesn’t research their conditions, which range from cognitive disabilities to congenital and complex neurodevelopment disorders. She doesn’t need to. “It’s just fun to learn from them,” Shea said. “I love the kids and I love watching the parents. They go home and have to deal with all the tantrums and stuff, and I feel like it’s the least I could do to just play with them for an hour each Sunday.”

The majority of players struggle with communication skills outside of the realm of cheers and expressions. Champs League focuses on teaching players fundamental drills more than game play. The one-on-one approach with mentors of the same age plays a significant part.

“I think it’s much more important to have kids,” said Risk, the mother of the basketball player with cerebral palsy. “My kid is around adults all the time. …[The buddies] just have something they know about. It’s not something you can teach.”

At practice, parents look on as their children and their buddies dribble basketballs. The taller players rehearse passes. But not everything is about the game.

Under his buddy’s supervision, Noah Risk playfully pinches the arm of a fellow player, and she mirrors his smile. Although Champs League is a sports-centered program, it is not uncommon for chances to strengthen buddy-player bonds to trump drills.

St. Stephen’s Episcopal sophomore Casey Vandervort insists she is the only buddy who can handle her player. Even after regularly getting her back jumped on and her hair pulled, it’s fun, she said.

“I love seeing just the smiles on the kids’ faces when they make a basket or learn something new and they show you the next week that they remember it,” Vandervort said.

It’s rare to see players not smiling. An excited, sticky-faced Noah said “getting a popsicle” is his favorite thing about the Champs League. But perhaps the real favorite is what he holds in his other hand.

“I would have never thought that trophies would mean anything,” Risk said. “Noah is so excited about his trophy. He wants to sleep with it. Probably like any other kid in America, they get a trophy and they want to put it in their room and see it and he wants it in his room. I would say that Champs has made him feel very special. I wouldn’t do this otherwise.”