By DAVE O’SULLIVAN
Daryl DeTroia’s son, Cameron, is on the autism spectrum and when Cameron was younger, Daryl wanted him to be active in sports. Which was fine at age 4 or 5, when sports such as soccer aren’t really competitive, but more about getting kids moving and burning off energy. But the older Cameron got, the more Daryl realized that the speed of the game was eventually going to be too much for his son. Instead of just giving up, Daryl started the Challenger League.
And what began with 20 players and 20 volunteers back in 2009 has grown into one of the biggest and best special needs athletic programs in the state. This fall, the Challenger soccer league competes every Sunday in Upper Township and has more than 60 kids and 80 volunteers. There are three games going on simultaneously with scores of student volunteers from various high schools and middle schools in the area who come out every week to help the special needs children enjoy an athletic experience.
“In my dreams, sure, I’ve always wanted this to continue to grow. I hope to see more. I hope to see hundreds of kids and volunteers out there. This season, for soccer, we have about 60 players and around 80 volunteers. I would love to see us have 100 or 150 kids. We actually — for the first time ever — had to stop taking volunteers. We had such an unbelievable outpouring of volunteers and an unbelievable amount of kids wanting to come out and help. We actually had to start putting kids on a waiting list,” DeTroia said. “Most of the volunteers are between eighth grade and seniors in high school. I think at last count we have 18 different schools who are sending us volunteers, between middle schools and high schools here, in Wildwood, the tech schools. I think every school in Cape May County, and some of the schools in Atlantic County, are sending us volunteers. They are coming from far and wide.”
The Challenger league has grown so much that now it hosts sports all year long. Soccer in the fall, bowling in the winter, and baseball in the spring. DeTroia also heads up a Special Olympics team that competes at places such as The College of New Jersey and Stockton University.
“We started with soccer and we had 20 players and 20 volunteers, all from Upper Township and Ocean City. The first year, we had two seasons of soccer (in fall and spring) and the second year we added baseball. The third year, we added bowling. The year after that, we added dance and got that program going, and started participating in the Special Olympics. We started with track and field, and that’s been a ton of fun. The kids go up to what’s called the Summer Games up at The College of New Jersey. We stay there for the whole weekend and it’s a huge three-day event,” DeTroia said. “It all came down to my son. He’s on the autism spectrum and we always wanted to keep him active and involved in sports. We did that up through kindergarten with soccer. The coaches and players were fantastic with him. But, very quickly, the game became too fast for him. He couldn’t keep up, and that became very frustrating for him. So we realized we needed to do something different.
“It’s kind of a community among parents who have kids with special needs, you all kind of know each other. So, we got to talking and we realized that we needed more activities for our kids locally, so my wife and I started Challenger. It just kind of grew from there.”
DeTroia said there wasn’t really something Challenger patterned itself after. The people involved at the start went through some trial and error to see what would work, and simply tried to get better organized with each passing season.
“There really wasn’t something to copy off of. There was really nothing around that was like what we wanted to do, with having all these activities and different sports where it’s all under one roof, so to speak. It was really just putting our heads together between parents and teachers, and hashing out what we had to do. Starting anything from scratch is always a little bit challenging, but it was all fun. It’s been a great learning experience. What’s nice is that now that we have a template of how to do it, I get calls from all over the country asking us how we started. Now, I can give people some details about what we did,” he said. “We were actually part of the Upper Township Soccer Association when we started, and that helped a lot. That got us over the hump because we were able to be part of an association. We were with them for a year before we had to venture out onto our own because we were doing more than just soccer. But they were a big help. It’s nice now to be able to give people a little bit of a template of how we got it going.”
What people see now on Sunday afternoons is dozens of students interacting with special needs athletes, and that interaction is great for both sides, DeTroia said.
“That’s one of the coolest things that happens. Just the communication and camaraderie that sparks up between the players and the student volunteers. The volunteers do such a tremendous job for us. The program wouldn’t exist without them. Sometimes they are a little timid when they first come out, not really knowing exactly what to do or where to go. We talk to them about what to expect and what do to, and, man, it just clicks and the next thing you know they are really one-on-one with the players and helping them out,” DeTroia said. “I think it goes both ways. I think both the players and volunteers have such a learning experience. It’s a really neat thing to watch.”
“I love going there on Sundays. Even though it’s only for about an hour, it’s so fun to get to know these kids and help them play sports. They might never get the chance to play on a school team, but just getting the chance to be out there with them for a couple hours is so fun. It’s great to see them get better every week, and to see the smile on their faces if they score a goal or if they make a good pass. It’s so rewarding to be able to give back to them, and I love going there and having that opportunity,” said Alexis Paone, a senior captain on the Ocean City High School field hockey team. “I started doing Challenger sports last year, and it really does put into perspective how blessed I am, how great my family is and the friends who surround me. I’m so lucky and happy to have a great life that God blessed me with.”
DeTroia said participating in Challenger has really made a big impact on his son’s life, so much so that now, as a high school freshman, Cameron had the confidence to join the Ocean City High boys cross country team. Having autism hasn’t stopped Cameron from being a valued member of a high school sports team, which is something his father is proud of.
“I think it’s helped Cameron socially. He talks more to people and (Ocean City kids) recognize him. It’s actually taught me a lot about what my son can do and what his capabilities are,” DeTroia said. “He’s now a freshman in high school and he joined the cross country team. He’s competing for the high school team, and I don’t know that he’d be there without the Challenger League. His teammates are fantastic and they volunteer with us.”
“I think they love having (high school) kids come out and work with them. I’ve worked with a couple of kids and no matter who they are with they are so happy to have somebody to talk to, to pass the ball to or whatever. They love that people want to help. I think it’s great how many volunteers want to come out because they need as much help with everything that they can get,” Paone said. “I think (they understand) who we are, some more than others. Especially if you are wearing your team sweatshirt or something to promote it they will ask you about it.”
Paone said one of the great things about Challenger is that it gives high school kids an opportunity to get to know kids they might not otherwise come in contact with.
“I love talking to them about what kind of pets they have at home or any other random things about their life that I want to get to know about them, and they’ll ask me about what sports I play. I just love to talk to them about anything,” she said. “I like to make friends with them and hang out with some of the people they hang out with at school. It’s so good to be able to get to know them on a level other than just playing sports with them.”
She said she has a lot of respect for DeTroia for not being deterred by the challenges his family faced, but rather taking those challenges on and creating something great for the community.
“I can tell he really loves it. He loves to organize it and get a lot of people involved because it’s something that is very important to him,” Paone said. “I can tell by his enthusiasm how much it means to him. It’s so rewarding to go there and everybody is happy and excited about playing. He’s such a respectable guy. He’s great, all-around.”
One of the stars of Challenger is a young boy named Charlie, who has an affliction where his bones are very brittle and can break easily. But nothing stops Charlie. He’s out there every Sunday zipping around in his wheelchair, and he also competes in bowling and baseball. He defines the opportunities that Challenger gives kids with special needs, DeTroia said.
“Charlie is definitely one of the house favorites. It just doesn’t seem like he has a bad day. He’s one of the happiest kids out there and he’s always giving it a go no matter what his struggles are,” DeTroia said. “He’s in a wheelchair; the challenges he has and that he’s overcome, everybody sees that he’s pushing himself and he’s living life — and living large. He’s definitely one of the favorites out there.”
So, what does the future hold for the Challenger League? DeTroia said that if somebody can dream it, chances are, the league can do it.
“There’s no limit to what we can do. We have the ability to continue to grow,” he said. “The more coaches we get, the more activities we can do. We have a lot of fun out there.”
Contact Dave O’Sullivan: firstname.lastname@example.org; on Twitter @GDsullysays
By DAVE O’SULLIVAN