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Football team makes Special Olympics connection

Defensive linemen drive through opposing offensive protection and take out whoever has the football. ISU’s Colton Underwood excels in the job. The 6-foot-4, 245-pound sophomore was deadly on the field last season, finishing with 16 tackles, including two sacks.

And yet when 3-foot-2, 50-pound Wyatt Whitlow encountered Underwood at a Special Olympics Young Athletes event last spring, the 7-year-old wasn’t intimidated. Whitlow smiled as he mounted the lineman. Underwood couldn’t help but smile back.

Area Director of Special Olympics Illinois Heartland/Area 6 Jill Speer ’07, M.S. ‘09, observed as Underwood accompanied Whitlow through several stations designed to help develop motor skills and hand-eye coordination.

Young Athletes hosts such events to fulfill its mission, which is to introduce youngsters ages two through seven with intellectual disabilities to sports in hopes of encouraging eventual Special Olympics training and competition.

“It is amazing to see the effort Wyatt and everyone else put in, and the adversity they are able to overcome,” said Underwood, who is one of several Illinois State football players who frequently volunteer for Special Olympics. “It’s fun watching all of them compete as hard as they do, despite the disabilities they have.”

Redbird football players have helped with numerous events, such as a district basketball tournament, spring and summer games, and the Law Enforcement Torch Run Polar Plunge fundraiser. Beyond interacting with Special Olympics athletes, they move equipment, supervise basketball courts, distribute lunches, and serve as security staff.