Special Olympians “Challenger” game takes the field

by Maddy Holman

After her birthday and Halloween, there is one special day Nina Ackerman looks forward to each year – the Challenger Football Classic. Nina’s mom Ellen Ackerman said the game is a highlight for many of the Special Olympics athletes.

“Hudson Special Olympics does not have a football team, so they have this one time per year that the athletes get to play on the beautiful Malson Field, with the bleachers full – and not just with their parents – and the announcing makes it extraordinary,” Ellen said.

The excitement begins, Ellen said, in the tunnel where Hudson Hawks football players and cheerleaders, along with Hudson High School football players and cheerleaders, line up with the Special Olympic athletes and names are announced as each athlete runs through the tunnel.  

“There is an award ceremony at the end announcing the athletes and a trophy is given,” she explained. “Hudson Hawks also have a program to hand out with the event’s sponsors and bios of the athletes.”

This event was held this year on Sept. 5, as the Hudson Special Olympians and the HHS Explorers took the field to face the seventh-grade Hawks. The Special Olympians, alongside the community members who showed up to cheer them on, celebrated a victory, per usual.

“The poor competing team never gets a break,” Ellen said. “Just when you think they get on the scoreboard, there seems to always be a flag on the play!”

The Sept. 5 game involved 15 Special Olympic athletes, including with some who cheered alongside Hudson cheerleaders. The HHS band erupted in a tune every time that the Special Olympians scored a touchdown and provided music to enhance the energetic atmosphere.

The Challenger Classic was started in 2006 by former Hudson Hawks board member Mark Guadagni. The community event serves as a fundraiser for the Special Olympics team. Organizers raise funds by selling ad space in the event program as well as soliciting local businesses in the community. Hudson Hawk board members also go door-to-door collecting donations.

Gene Fitch, local Special Olympics coordinator, said a portion of this year’s proceeds – roughly $25,000 – will be used to purchase specialty tablets that will help coaches interact with non-verbal and deaf athletes and better manager their programs.

“Hudson Special Olympics is a 100% volunteer organization. There are no paid staff or coaches; 100% of all monies coming into the organization are used for athlete programming,” Fitch said.

“We truly appreciate the Hudson Hawks for organizing, all of the sponsors, and the publicity given to it,” Ellen added. “We rely on the generosity of this amazing community to sustain our special organization that provides our athletes with sports to stay active, fit and social with their peers. Each of them has their own unique story and experience, but generally speaking, there is a great sense of joy, camaraderie, achievement, and pride from participating in Special Olympics.” ∞

The athletes names are announced as they take the field for the annual fundraiser. Photos submitted.

Photo (main / above): Nina Ackerman, 25, has competed alongside her Special Olympic teammates in the Challenger Football Classic for more than 15 years. Photos submitted.