COMMERCE CITY, Colo. — Saturday night was busy at Dick’s Sporting Goods Park. Most dramatically, the Colorado Rapids pulled off a come-from-behind win over Columbus Crew SC, after scoring two goals in the last 10 minutes of the game.
On top of that, the club inducted local legend and current Rapids assistant coach Conor Casey into the club’s Gallery of Honor.
But the noteworthy happenings didn’t stop there. After all of that, fans got to witness another important match-up: the Special Olympics Unified Rapids squad vs. the Crew SC’s Special Olympics Unified squad. And somewhat mirroring the earlier results, they took home their own victory, 1-0.
Special Olympics Unified soccer teams consist of 20 players, both with and without intellectual disabilities (the latter are termed “partners” on the team). Now, every MLS team in the United States has a Special Olympics partnership team, the senior squad featuring players 16 to 25 years old.
The squads line up this past Saturday night. Photo by Life's Image photography
The Rapids fielded a relative veteran on Saturday night – 24-year-old Scotty Stephens, who’s played with the squad for the past two years alongside his 18-year-old brother Jonny, who plays as a Unified partner. The boys each started playing soccer when they were around eight years old, according to their mother, Beth.
“As he [Scotty] got a little bit older, he couldn’t quite keep up with the other kiddos on that team,” she said. “I remembered hearing about the Special Olympics and I thought maybe that would be a good fit for him.”
Scotty and his former youth teammates all leveled up to the senior squad at the same time to keep the team together. And on Saturday night, that long-term unity showed.
As the first half wound down during their match, both the Colorado and Columbus teams boasted several shots on goal. But at the last minute (literally), Scotty Stephens received a pass at the top of the six-yard box, squared up, and took the shot. The ball hit the opposing goalkeeper’s foot, went between his legs, and rolled into the goal.
Indeed, this would prove to be the eventual game-winner. The healthy crowd – including many fans who stayed after the MLS league match – went wild. Scotty, in turn, ran to the sideline, smiling, and engaged the crowd in the Viking clap.
And the assist? It came from his brother, Jonny, of course.
Scotty Stephens celebrates his goal. Photo by Life's Image photography
Also on hand to celebrate? Rapids defender Eric Miller, who’s been involved with the Colorado chapter of the Special Olympics for the last two years. While he doesn’t have a connection to anyone with special needs in his personal life, “I just thought it would be a super cool opportunity,” he said. “It was incredible last year. It was so much fun to be a part of.”
That means he’s joined the Unified team for events like their signing day and “Shop with a Jock.” “They go to Dick’s Sporting Goods and get an allotment to spend and get a bunch of stuff,” Miller explained. “We help them pick out what they get, and it’s a lot of fun to be a part of that.”
Miller feels that being a part of the Special Olympics partnership “enhances your sense of gratitude” as an MLS player, he said. “You don’t necessarily always think about how nice it is, but to see how excited they are to be here and to play in the stadium, too, makes it special for us and think about how lucky we are to be professional soccer players.”
Meanwhile, says Beth Stephens, the opportunity makes Scotty feel special. “It makes him feel valued. It’s an opportunity that is unparalleled to any of the other things that he gets to do,” she said. “He just feels like he’s one of the guys.”
The Special Olympics organization is always looking for volunteers in Colorado and beyond. To get involved, visit SpecialOlympics.org and find your local chapter.