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Dream Scene

Redlands' Team Managers Teach as Many Enduring Lessons as They Learn

November 24, 2001|GARY KLEIN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The Redlands High football team won its first league title since 1977, finished the regular season unbeaten and advanced to the Southern Section Division I quarterfinals before losing Friday night to perennial power Santa Ana Mater Dei.

It was an especially successful season for a school that fielded its first football team 100 years ago and began one of the most special programs in Southland high school athletics in 1994.

That was the year Coach Jim Walker and his players and staff welcomed students from the school's special education department as team managers.

Every year since, two or three developmentally disabled students have assisted the Terriers during practices and games. The managers--dubbed the Dream Team--fulfill a variety of daily responsibilities on the field and serve as conduits for understanding and acceptance off of it.

"I love winning, I like being ranked and all those things that come with having a season like this," Walker said a few weeks ago.

"But the bottom line is, we're where we are as a program and community because of things like the Dream Team.

"Every school should have a program like this."

There are more than 40 students at Redlands with Down syndrome or other developmentally disabling conditions. The students, who can attend Redlands up to age 22, work on academic and life skills in their own wing of classrooms, but also take electives with the general student body and can participate in work-study programs.

Walker, who has been coaching at Redlands since 1992, began the Dream Team with assistance from special education teacher Kathy Klicka after befriending a family with a special-needs child. Since then, special education students at Redlands also have participated as cheerleaders, on the wrestling team and as team managers in other sports.

During spring, football players also help coach students from throughout Redlands Unified School District in the Optimist Games, an annual citywide athletic event for physically and mentally challenged youngsters.

"When football players get to know our kids, they see them as individuals and people to enjoy," Klicka said. "When they see them on campus, they are accepted. It's a good example for the rest of the school. They set the tone."

Clark Hites, 20, is in his fifth season as a football team manager and will graduate this spring. He joined the Dream Team program, he said, "just to make some friends." His favorite part of being involved? "Seeing the football players every day."

Under the direction of equipment manager Jack Lake, Hites helps with water and other equipment needs throughout practice and also occasionally holds the ball for kickers on field-goal attempts. On game nights, he and first-year manager Nick Garcia are joined by Dream Team alumni such as Gary Sepulveda in leading the Terriers onto the field before assisting Lake and the players on the sideline.

"As far as we're concerned, they're team members, so there is never an issue of somebody not treating them with respect," senior lineman David Shrekenhamer said.

Peg Hites, Clark's mother, said the Dream Team experience has provided her son the opportunity to grow. This year, he is transferring skills acquired through school and the Dream Team to his part-time job at a grocery store.

"He's learned to take instructions, stay on task, follow through and meet a whole new group of guys every year where he has to fit in and go with the flow," she said. "It's given him skills that I don't think he would have acquired in any other way.

"It's the love of the game that fostered the skill. Just like the players."

Last year, Clark became the first recipient of the Nathan Mercado Memorial Managerial Staff Award, named in honor of a popular Dream Team member from 1997-99 who died of cancer in 2000. Clark received the award at the team banquet in front of cheering players.

"This program is another way to train the football team as leaders," Peg Hites said. "They're in touch with a segment of society they might not otherwise come into contact with. They'll take that with them after high school and be sensitive, caring people all through their lives because they weren't separated according to ability levels."

Dwayne Patterson, a senior defensive back, said dealing with Dream Team managers and participating in the Optimist Games already has affected the way he treats others, especially developmentally disabled classmates.

"If I wasn't in this [football] program, I would probably just go my own way," Patterson said. "I don't think I would be as affectionate as I am now in terms of going up and saying, 'Hi' and giving them a hug. This program has taught us a lot about treating these kids with love."

Those good feelings extend beyond the players and the managers.

In a game against Fontana in October, an official's call went against Redlands, angering Walker and his staff. When Clark Hites got in his parents' car after the game, he told them about Walker being upset. The Hites patiently explained that football coaches sometimes react that way.

"Yeah," Clark said, "but I still love 'im."

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