It’s 2:40 p.m., and the main gym of Union City High School is jam-packed, the cacophony of students’ voices blending to form one dull roar.
But with the piercing shriek of the end-of-day bell, the crowd disperses, leaving the gym empty and silent.
They don’t know that they’re going to miss the main event.
Today is the Tri-State Olympians Family Fun Fest, the third and final of a series of athletic events for Union City High’s special education students.
The brainchild of Otis Davis, an Olympic gold medalist-turned truant officer, the events have been going on for four years now.
As if on cue, Davis walks into the empty gym and starts setting up the basketball court, a silver whistle dangling off his neck.
Though it’s been 53 summers now since Davis won the 400 meter dash and 4x400m relay in Rome, the 80 year old looks as spry and energetic as ever.
And as the 12-or-so students march in proudly with a few parents and special education teachers in tow, it’s easy to see a renewed spring in his step.
As the students get split up into two teams and don pinnies, Davis moves to center court, joined by special education teacher Daniel Prusko, the day’s self-declared emcee.
“We’ve got to get more parents involved.” – Otis Davis
The kids have picked out their own nicknames to be introduced as, and Prusko belts out each one with gusto.
“The birthday boy…Mewtwo!”
The kids are energized by Prusko’s introductions, high-fiving every hand they can find and jumping around at center court.
It takes Davis’ steady hands and calm voice to bring the students back to reality and position them at center court for tipoff of the main event: a 20 minute basketball game, broken up into two halves with a running clock.
And with the gentle toss of a ball into the air from Davis, the game begins.
With the way the game is run, it’s impossible to cover it as a sporting event in the most literal sense of the word. Davis hands the ball to “Popper” after it flies out of bounds, allowing her to shoot on her own basket just so she can have the experience of scoring. He hurls the ball down the court on an inbounds play, letting the kids chase after it.
But even though the game isn’t particularly competitive, one player comes alive: “The Punisher.”
“The Punisher,” (real name: John Rodriguez) simply can’t miss. A three-pointer bounces high off the backboard and in. A smooth left-handed drive to the basket drops. A turnaround jumper off the elbow falls. He breakdances at midcourt in jubilation before running back on defense.
Staring right at Rodriguez’s sparkling new Air Force Ones after yet another shot falls, Prusko exclaims “It’s gotta be the shoes!” a la Mars Blackmon.
Davis calls for time, and Prusko runs over to conduct a breathless sideline interview.
Rodriguez, for his part, gives his credit to a bottle of red Gatorade his dad gave to him before the game, claiming it gives him “magic powers.”
Alone in the stands, a broad grin crosses his dad’s face, one that doesn’t leave until Rodriguez has finished scoring 24 points en route to a blowout victory for his blue team over the red team (though the players are too busy having fun to notice — or care — about the final score).
With the game over, the kids, teachers and family members break up into two teams and circle around opposite baskets. Each player shoots and then passes to the person standing next to them. First team to ten points wins.
But the game has more depth than that, with lessons about teamwork and cooperation hidden underneath.
Prusko takes a seat in the stands and turns off the microphone for a few minutes. Devoid of background noise, he seems happy to have the chance to take in the scene playing out in front of him.
“These guys are the biggest fans,” he says, looking out at the kids as they laugh and shoot. “They come to the pep rally, they get excited to see the athletes in the school.
“And to me — I work with a lot of these students with the Special Olympics — this is their opportunity to give them their day…to make them feel like they’re a part of the school.”
And there may not be anyone that works harder at that than Davis, though the students may be blissfully unaware that there’s an Olympic hero in their midst.
“They would never know him as ‘Otis Davis, the Olympic medalist’,” Prusko says. “If they knew that about him, they would probably be even more impressed about him. Mr. Davis is a humble man and portrays himself as an everyday guy so they look at him, and they see ‘hero,’ because they enjoy the attention that he brings to them and what they’re doing.”
As Prusko says this, Davis is hard at work as a referee, keeping his head on a swivel as he wheels around with each cry of a made basket.
Alone on the court
As the shooting competition draws to a close, Davis stands alone at center court, watching pensively as the students, teachers, and the small handful of parents and siblings walk out of the gym.
“We’ve got to get more parents involved,” he says. There were only around three parents that attended the game. “They don’t understand the impact that we’re having because they’re not here….you can see what happens here; I just saw [the students] down a little bit because they get so worked up.”
He adds, “See, I enjoy doing this, because I’m reliving my own dreams.”
And it in this dream of helping others achieve that Davis finds himself the most fulfilled, giving the less fortunate a chance to shine, if only for a day, on the same stage that he once shone.
“Most people think, with my background, all I’m going to do is look at the [varsity teams] and blah, blah, blah,” he says. “The need is here. [The students] need to know that someone appreciates them… they love this attention, and they need it.”
Perhaps getting philosophical, Davis thinks back to “The Punisher,” and his exploits.
But he doesn’t care about “The Punisher’s” Air Force Ones, or his 24 points, or even his magic Gatorade.
“Remember the game where you have to take one shot [and you have to pass after]?” Davis asks. “He’s learning something there, because he doesn’t do it when he plays…but he’s learning how to follow his shots now. That’s why I give these events.”
He cares about his soul.