Unify March Madness much more than just a game

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Christopher Hedden

On Wednesday, Feb. 28, athletes eagerly passed through the Franklin High School (FHS) gym threshold to await the start of basketball practice. The players arrived 30 minutes early, as player Charles Bradley said, “It’s better to show up early rather than late.”

The athletes were in the gym to prepare for this year’s 5th Annual Unify March Madness basketball game, set for March 21. 

Inspirational Foundations  

In 2019, FHS teacher Penny Moffitt, coach Bekah Brooks, and student Shanlee Angel Collier organized the first Unify basketball game. The primary goal has always been to unify Exceptional Children (EC) students and alumni with their peers and broader community. Since the first year, participation and attendance have only increased. This year’s game is expected to feature the greatest number of players to date.

Coach Brooks recalls the inspiration for Unify sparking in 2015. Former EC student and current player Britney Watson scored her first “honorary” basket in a regular junior varsity game because it was Watson’s dream to do so, according to Brooks. 

“I remember it like it was yesterday … it was phenomenal to watch her (Watson) live out her dream of playing basketball,” said Brooks. 

Watson is preparing for her fifth appearance at the upcoming Unify March Madness game. In fact, the game is open to current EC students and alumni. Some players are even in their late 20s. 

BRITNEY WATSON is a 5th-year veteran player looking forward to participating in the upcoming Unify March Madness game.

How the game works

Players will engage in a full-length basketball game involving two teams of current and alumni EC students identified by two colors (one red, one white). Brothers Jay and Josh Brooks (FHS coaches), will officiate the game. EC players are rotated in and out and are aided by FHS student volunteer partners.

Student partners are assigned to a specific player at the beginning of the semester. For example, senior Avery Moffitt will be partnering with rookie player, Kaitlyn Reeves. Avery, who plans to play softball at North Georgia University after she graduates from FHS, said, “I feel accomplished when Kaitlyn makes a basket and moves down the court. Connections with my classmates is my favorite part of Unify.” 

Reeves expressed that she is looking forward to “beating the white team.” 

Practice is held twice a week from the beginning of the spring semester until the game in March. Layup lines start the 30-minute practice. During practice, players undergo various drills in disciplines such as passing, defense and game strategy.

 “We didn’t have to start from scratch; they know what a layup is … they know how to play defense,” said Brooks, adding that players have been working on full-court passes, bounce passes, and chest passes. More technical drills like “3 on 2” are practiced as a result of stellar skill retention by the athletes.

Besides physical preparation, players engage in mindset training. Coaches give the players team speeches before and after each practice, instilling in them team spirit and motivation. Student partners talk with their assigned player between drills to create bonding and fluidity between the pair.

KAITLYN REEVES, Rookie Unify player, will be partnering with Franklin High School Senior Avery Moffitt to participate in the upcoming game on March 21.

Building Community  

Along with building a team, Unify seeks to build community involvement with the people of Franklin. General admission is free to all, and all are encouraged to attend. Local businesses and donors provide financial support to the game, keeping costs low. Chick-fil-A of Franklin will provide a pre-game meal for this year’s players. 

For past games, Unify has borrowed FHS varsity jerseys for players. This year, funding allowed staff to purchase a set of new jerseys specifically for the Unify game. New jerseys add another hallmark to the list, making sure this tradition is set in stone for future generations. According to Brooks, “Macon Middle School Exceptional Children students await, in anticipation, for their moment to shine in the Unify game when they become a high schooler.”

PLAYERS WARM up by practicing their jump shots in anticipation for the 5th annual Unify March Madness game at Franklin High School.

Unify community service is not solely facilitated by donors or local business but by the players as well. When players are not preparing for their big night, you can find them visiting nursing homes, filling shoe boxes for Operation Christmas Child, or visiting the local pregnancy center. Players are proving that servanthood knows no disability. 

“All people are phenomenal, but God makes these people very special,” said Brooks.

Sherri Houston has been a teacher at FHS since 1994. She has worked in the EC department her entire career. Many current students and alumni regard Houston as their favorite teacher and who they look forward to seeing the most at Unify practices and games. Houston feels that working for the EC program is her calling in life. 

PATRICK FAETZ, FHS senior, will participate in the broadcasting booth during the Unify event.

“The students are real, their needs are very real … they need and want to learn … they enjoy the simple things and I’m kind of the same way,” said Houston. She works diligently to help her students obtain their full potential with patience that exceeds the ordinary. Unify is another tool to uncover student potential. 

“What means the most to me is knowing our kids are accepted by the non-EC students, and that isn’t a one-night thing but rather the atmosphere of our school,” she added.

Creating Opportunity

Unify March Madness gives players a unique moment to shine in a major public sphere of sport. Bradley said, “People with disabilities don’t get to do a lot of different things.” He is an alumnus and a Unify rookie, and he explained he is most looking forward to playing alongside his best friend, Joel Rogers.

On game night, the broadcasting booth will have a special guest, FHS Senior Patrick Faetz, who is a special needs student with a passion for broadcasting and socialization. After completing high school, Patrick would like to attend Western Carolina University to study communications in the University Participant Program. His goal is to use his talent of public speaking in the talk show arena. When asked if he gets nervous to speak in public, he said, “I am not afraid to step in front of people and do my job.” His life motto is, “Always be kind.”

The Fifth Annual Unify March Madness basketball game will be held March 21 at 6 p.m. in the FHS gymnasium. A “Parade of Champions” will begin at 5:30 p.m. on Panther Drive in order to cheer on teams as they make their way into the gym for competition. The public is invited and encouraged to attend and support participating athletes.