WARSAW – Sitting idly working through emails and texts on his phone, IHSAA Commissioner Bobby Cox had one eye on business and his other eye on, well, business.
In the Warsaw area two weeks ago, Cox was double dipping on several items on his congested daily schedule. Part of his aim, as an observer, was to see how the Unified Flag Football was taking shape. Per Cox, things were going as well as hoped.
“It’s a historic day for the association and a great day for our member schools that have chosen to participate in the event,” Cox said. “It’s a part of the Champions Together program and seconds the track and field. We also have bocce ball and bowling in the winter, which gives us a sport in each season.”
Cox was observing the Warsaw sectional, which hosted Unified Flag Football teams from Warsaw, Tippecanoe Valley, Wawasee and Goshen. In its inaugural season, the state opened with games in mid-September and quickly drew to the state tournament on Sept. 29, where Cox descended upon Warsaw. In all, 25 teams from around the state competed in the state tournament. The Valley Vikings won the first sectional of its kind, to which Cox took part in the postgame ceremonies and spoke with the coaches about its progress.
“Not much bigger than having the commissioner watching your games,” said Valley head coach Jeff Shriver after the sectional. “It’s very encouraging to see this sport start up and have the commissioner coming out to watch the games. That shows support from the top that this is a legitimate sport.”
Tippecanoe Valley has since gone on to win the regional and will represent the area in the IHSAA Unified Flag Football State Finals in Indianapolis along with Noblesville, Ben Davis and Bedford North Lawrence. The games will be played at the Indianapolis Colts training facility this Saturday. Valley will face Noblesville in the first semi-final, with Ben Davis and Bedford North Lawrence playing opposite. The two winners will play for the giant trophy.
Valley becomes the seventh unified sports team from the general area to represent in the state finals. In Unified Track and Field, Warsaw has won two state championships and Elkhart Memorial most recently won the state championship this past June. Warsaw won the very first Unified track title in 2013 and then again in 2015. Cox sees the growth of the two sports as a blessing to what the IHSAA already offers in its 20 initial sports, with the possibility to grow even more.
“It’s been very rewarding to see this come to fruition after a couple years of conversation and expanding the opportunity for young athletes with and without disabilities to come together,” Cox said. “The whole idea of this program is to create a better climate in our member schools and change the culture. Eliminate conversations about the ‘R’ word and replace the word with ‘respect’. That’s all students with intellectual disabilities want is to be respected and included.”
Asked how Unified Flag Football situates itself with the recent downward trend in tackle football, Cox said he still feels tackle football is strong, adding football on Friday nights “are a pillar” for most communities. Locally, four Northern Lakes Conference programs didn’t have a freshman football team, Elkhart Memorial lacks a JV team, and Fairfield went as far as having to cancel a varsity game with Culver Academy because of a lack of able bodies.
Cox, however, chose to look at the Unified options as an additional opportunity for schools to build self-esteem through teamwork and unity.
“I think this program will explode in the next three years, and the tournament is built with the mindset of massive expansion going forward,” Cox said. “As more young people and teams become involved, we look to create a greater climate of inclusion in our state. That’s what school sports does. It gives young people an opportunity to represent the school and their community. Many times, they wear the school name, but they represent more than that. In a lot of cases, these kids wouldn’t get that otherwise.
“We feel really good about that aspect and where we are going. Today (the sectional) is a really historic day for us going forward.”