The Special Olympics soccer team from Franklin County kept its cool and overcame a three-goal deficit on the big stage at Red Bull Arena Saturday night. But the 4-4 draw against a talented squad from New Jersey was just a side note on a memorable weekend made possible by MLS WORKS.
The opportunity to represent Crew SC and don the Black & Gold for a night, playing on a Major League Soccer pitch and being recognized on the stadium’s video board, was a once-in-a lifetime opportunity for the Franklin County Flyers athletes.
“Walking out on the field and, in all honesty, watching their faces […] you just kind of stood back and watched,” said Alan Beymer, a six-year volunteer for Franklin County Special Olympics. “There was this sense of amazement that was awesome.”
That sense of amazement was tangible all day Saturday, which began with a trip to the Statue of Liberty, followed by a team recognition on the field ahead of the match between Crew SC and the New York Red Bulls.
After enjoying what was, for most of the athletes, their first live experience of an MLS match, one of the most memorable moments came next: the locker room entrance. Black & Gold kits, including matching cleats, rested at each locker below the athletes’ and volunteers’ names.
The team from Franklin County was made up of four volunteers and eight athletes. The youngest of them was 16-year-old Lynn DeLong, who scored the first goal for the Columbus side.
“For me, I just waited for the opportunity,” DeLong said. “Ricko’ [Thornton] didn’t get to it. I was on the corner able to kick it in.”
The other three goals for the Flyers came from Thornton’s second-half hat trick, including the game-tying strike that ripped through the back of the net with just 20 seconds remaining. Known for his ability to use the “rainbow” move on defenders, Thornton proved to be a potent offensive threat.
“I told him he can’t go zero-for-100 forever. One of ‘em has to go in,” said Ryan Phillips, the Director of Special Olympics for Franklin County.
Beymer made sure to give the striker a little pep talk at halftime as well.
“I think we were down 2-1 at half, and I just said to him, ‘Hey man, put one in. Don’t get cute—start putting them in the net.’ Second half, he came back pretty strong. He does not lack confidence at all, but he’s a good dude.”
Beymer credits some of this confidence to opportunities like the trip to New York.
“From the athletes’ perspective, I think it helps a ton with confidence,” Beymer said. “Just for them to come here and experience this, I think for all of them it really just brings a different world than what they’re normally used to […] Coming here is something they’ve just never done before and may never get to do again, which I think gives them some independence.”
One of the most enthusiastic members on the Ohio side was its oldest athlete, 53-year-old goalkeeper Hugh Brunney Jr.—or as everyone likes to call him, “Hollywood.”
“I couldn’t have done it without my team, without my coaches, without the partners, and I couldn’t do it without my teammates as well,” Hollywood said. “I’m watching their backs and they’re watching mine.”
As DeLong astutely pointed out during their post-match interviews, “We’re pretty much actually watching your front, because your back is by the net.”
It’s a fair point, but someone else was watching Hollywood’s back. Crew SC Sporting Director and Head Coach Gregg Berhalter snuck up behind Hollywood during the match. Hollywood had asked earlier if Berhalter could stick around following Crew SC’s match against the Red Bulls. The fact that he did made the goalie’s entire trip.
“He came up and shook my hand,” Hollywood said. “He couldn’t believe how impressed he was with my athletic abilities and my goalie techniques.”
Beymer was equally impressed with the goalkeeper’s performance.
“He was aggressive. I think he had to be, just ‘cause their two players were pretty good and they were ripping shots, but I thought he did great,” Beymer said. “He’s 53-years-old – I thought that was pretty impressive, him diving on the ground.”
The entire match was something that left Beymer and the other volunteers impressed.
“Both teams kind of being equal as far as skillset, it was fun,” he said. “It was fun to be participating, but also just kind of stepping back and being able to watch it, I thought was super cool. You’re in a huge stadium and you get to watch everybody playing hard and having fun at the same time.”
With a 4-4 draw, medals and smiles all around, the evening and the weekend ended on a perfect note.
“I don’t think it could’ve been scripted any better,” Beymer said. “To end it with a tie, it was fitting for both teams.”