By Jack Titter
For The Signal
As the sun begins to set behind the hills overlooking the grass field, the air is filled with that familiar and comfortable fall chill. The football players with their flags flowing around their waists get set for the next play on the field.
The quarterback shouts “GO!” gets the ball, and looks downfield. He sees a receiver wide open and makes the throw. The ball sails through the air, just out of reach of all the defenders, and right into the hands of the receiver who stands in the center of the end zone.
“Touchdown!” is yelled as the rest of the players on offense throw their arms up and celebrate their outstanding play. The players on defense even smile and chuckle and get ready for their chance to score a touchdown of their own.
By now the sun has set and the tall stadium lights illuminate the field as the games continue into the night with constant cheers, laughs and jubilation from players, coaches, parents and cheerleaders. This is a typical Sunday night for the SNAP Cougars flag football and cheer teams.
SNAP (Special Needs Athletes and Peers) was founded in 2012 and partnered with the Ice Station Valencia to create the SNAP Flyers program with the goal of teaching special needs athletes how to skate and play hockey. The program has continued as the Ice Station became The Cube under new ownership of the city of Santa Clarita.
In 2013 the SNAP Cougars flag football and cheer program was added and then the SNAP Roadrunners track and field program was formed in 2016.
All of these programs have the same goal: to provide individuals with disabilities the opportunity to not only participate, but also to excel at different sports and activities while also helping them gain confidence and skills to use throughout the rest of their lives.
Helping the athletes achieve those goals are head flag football coaches Rob Muir and Beckie Warloe. During practices, Muir and Warloe go back and forth from playing quarterback in the games to teaching individual players how to throw and catch.
Warloe talked about her goals with the athletes: “I always want them to have fun and to give them an opportunity to play a sport that people might say they couldn’t or shouldn’t.”
In order to assist the special needs athletes during the games, Muir and Warloe like to have at least one peer or neurotypical athlete on each team. That spot is filled by Muir, Warloe, or any volunteers who attend the practices.
The practices also include the SNAP cheerleaders, who perform routines and cheer on their fellow SNAP athletes. The SNAP cheerleaders are coached by volunteers from the West Ranch High School cheer team.
Sometimes there are enough players to set up two fields to have two games going on at the same time. Muir and Warloe make sure to create teams of players of similar skill levels to keep the games competitive.
The practices bring about that feeling of playing backyard football with a group of friends, and the athletes enjoy the time spent making new friends and enjoying themselves.
One athlete, Ben Kawasawa, said, “I love getting to hang out with all my friends and having fun together. Besides work, football is my favorite activity and I really look forward to it.”
Another athlete, Colbert Williams, said, “It’s fun getting to catch the ball and make touchdowns. Rob and Beckie are great coaches and I’ve learned a lot from them.”
Having that experience of backyard football always brings people together and Muir is grateful that SNAP provides that opportunity.
“I grew up playing football but had the most fun playing backyard football with my friends. I want to give these players that same feeling and the same memories,” Muir said.
SNAP accepts individuals of any age and disability. One of the members of the SNAP advisory committee, Chandra Neal, has a son named Ryan who is legally blind and autistic.
Ryan participates in both flag football and ice hockey. Neal described how important SNAP has been for her and Ryan. “I think it’s important for more families to be aware of SNAP. They provide an inclusive environment and I’m grateful that they provide an outlet of camaraderie between peers and special needs athletes.”
As a nonprofit organization, SNAP relies on donations to provide gear, field rentals and ice time for its programs. In order to help raise funds, SNAP hosts the annual Skate-A-Thon at The Cube.
This year’s Skate-A-Thon was held on Saturday, Nov. 5, and included an hour of continuous skating by all participants followed by a raffle. The event was attended by city Councilman Bill Miranda and Mayor Laurene Weste.
Miranda recognizes the importance of nonprofits like SNAP. Regarding SNAP, Miranda said, “It’s a huge nonprofit and without the great people behind it, these participants might not have this chance to skate.”
Miranda added, “When you volunteer for an organization like this, you’re benefiting each individual participant. You’re taking kids that might feel that things aren’t on their side, and you’re making them feel great about who they are.”
The SNAP Flyers will continue their current season practices at The Cube until April. SNAP Cougars ended their season on Oct. 23 and begin their next season during the spring.
The flag football team used to travel to San Diego to play in tournaments but hasn’t been able to for the past couple of years due to COVID-19. For next season, Muir and Warloe hope to return to San Diego and provide even more memories for all the SNAP athletes and their families.