‘Challenger’ football game returns to Hudson community for 15th year

by Laura Bednar

The Hudson Special Olympics team competes in several sports throughout the year, but one event that stands out among the others is the annual Challenger Football Classic.

The Challenger Classic started 15 years ago when former board member for the Hudson Hawks youth football program, Mark Guadagni, wanted to feature Hudson Special Olympics athletes in a community event. What started as a game became a successful fundraiser for the Special Olympics team.

Hudson Hawks Board President Mike Deleo said the game raised $14,000 last year and this year’s goal is to top that by $1,000. Funds come from selling ad space in the program for the game as well as soliciting local businesses in the community.

“Lots of business owners had kids in the program,” he said. “Board members go door to door and we have some generous donors.”

There are 15 board members and Deleo said each one does what they can to make the event successful. Some have children on the Hawks team, while others have stayed even after their child aged out of the program.

He added that funds raised have been able to cover the Hudson Special Olympic team athletic budget for a year.

This year, there will be 25 special Olympic athletes involved, including some girls who will be cheerleading. Seniors from the Hudson High School football team will partner with the special athletes on the field and run plays alongside them as they compete against the seventh-grade Hudson Hawks.

Many seniors used to play as Hawks, which Deleo said is a nice way for the event to come full circle.

The Hawks cheerleaders and cheerleaders from HHS will join the special cheerleaders, and band members from the high school will provide tunes during the game.

Deleo said cheerleaders from Kent State University once came to the game, as did Zippy, the mascot from The University of Akron.

The game is a regular football game, though it’s touch, not tackle. “It’s a serious athletic event for the special Olympics program,” he said. “We try to get all the players involved and make sure the team comes away with a good feeling.”

Deleo has been involved with the Hudson Hawks for 25 years, and he said it’s his love of football, coaching and teaching the kids that keeps him involved.

He said Hawks players see challenges that special athletes overcome and learn that not everyone has the same advantages.

“We want the Hawks to get exposure to kids who may not have the same athletic ability but play just as hard,” he said. “They love to play football as much as them.”

The Challenger game will be Tuesday, Sept. 6, at 7 p.m. at Hudson Middle School’s Scott Malson Memorial Field on Franklin Street. ∞