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Jets, Special Olympics Pioneer the First Unified Flag Football League in Northern New Jersey

Joe Tippmann, All-Pro Quincy Williams Assist in Hosting Inaugural Event at Jets Training Facility


On Wednesday afternoon, the New York Jets hosted more than 100 students from four local high schools at the Atlantic Health Jets Training Center to celebrate the launch of the first Unified High School Flag Football League in Northern New Jersey in partnership with Special Olympics New Jersey.

All teams participated in a flag football training clinic on the Jets indoor artificial turf field and rotated through a series of drills that focused on learning the fundamental rules and skills of the game – including route running, flag pulling and ball security.

"This event is an opportunity to get all these athletes and their partners exposed to football," Special Olympics New Jersey senior director of competition Jeff Baldino said. "Football is not a sport we have gotten a lot of traction in with the Unified community so far, this is an amazing opportunity to grow the game in New Jersey and in schools and hopefully throughout Special Olympics."

Over the past four years, the New York Jets' community relations team has been at the forefront of developing high school girls flag football in New Jersey and New York, culminating in flag being sanctioned as an official state championship sport in New York in 2024.

At the end of 2023, in collaboration with Special Olympics New Jersey, the Jets CR team set off on a similar path inviting local New Jersey schools to participate in a Unified Flag Football League. Four high schools -- Morris Knolls, Morristown, Roxbury and West Orange -- agreed to compete in the first season for the new league, which will begin play next week.

"We talked about trying to model it after the women's program, which has been very very successful, so for us, it didn't take much convincing," Baldino said about when the Jets first reached out. "We helped connect Eli [Hodges], Mackenzie [Fuller] and Jesse [Linder] [Jets CR staff] with the schools that we already had relationships with because they are all already are part of our Unified school sports programing. So, they understand what they're doing."

Jets center Joe Tippmann, All-Pro linebacker Quincy Williams, defensive lineman Tanzel Smart and linebacker Marcelino McCrary-Ball attended the launch clinic and helped guide the players and their coaches through the stations and stayed late after the event to sign autographs and take photos.

"It really says something about the Jets organization and how they want to reach their community and make a difference through athletics," West Orange High School athletic director Stephan Zichella said. "So, for the Jets to help us reach some of our special needs population and give them this experience, we are so excited about it and just seeing the faces today it makes a world of a difference. You have Jets players out her interacting with these kids on every rep and drill. I couldn't imagine a better day for this program to take off."

Each team in the league is made up of 15-to-30 players with approximately a 2-1 ratio of Unified players to Unified partners. Each team will play six regular-season games over six weeks leading up to the playoffs, which will be held at the Atlantic Health Jets Taining Center.

The Jets have made sizable financial commitments to each team, which includes providing flags, uniforms, transportation to games and events and helping each team to hire part-time coaches and other staff.

"This whole event was just so much fun," said West Orange student-athlete Kayla Mengden. "I love hanging out with all of these kids and seeing all the similes on their faces and positivity and excitement it just makes us all feel so good."

The Jets, in collaboration with Special Olympics New Jersey, launched a Unified High School Flag Football League that includes four New Jersey high schools who will compete in the new league. The Jets hosted a kickoff clinic for all participants at the Atlantic Health Jets Training Center on Wednesday and each team participated in a number of drills and also received uniforms, footballs, flag belts, and practice jerseys along with hope that this league serves as a pilot for the state to offer Unified Flag Football as an official sport for high schools in the future. See below for the best photos from the event.

The short-term goal of the league is for it to gain enough popularity among high schools in Northern New Jersey to motivate fellow schools to participate.

In the long-term, the Jets hope to make Unified flag football a sport sanctioned by the New Jersey State Interscholastic Athletic Association.

"This is where interest and opportunity met," Baldino said. "We're always open to ways to expand our program and get more athletes involved and to engage differently, and when the Jets started to talk about this, it was something that made total sense."

Unified sports have become an essential part of high school athletics across the country. The mission of these leagues is to provide children with intellectual disabilities an opportunity to develop physical fitness, demonstrate courage, experience joy and participate in the traditional gifts that sports can provide through competition and friendship.

With the Unified Flag Football League is in the beginning stages of its development, the New York Jets believe they have started New Jersey high schools in the right direction and will be there every step of the way as partner and a leader.

"Our programs unify these kids through sport," Baldino said. "We've had superintendents come up to us and say that they've seen a reduction in bullying or isolation for those individuals with intellectual disabilities and learning disabilities because they now feel more part of their community. They not only participate together in sport, but they begin to carry it out into the social world. They're invited to the parties. They're sitting at lunch tables with people. I mean, that's huge. You have a catalyst that begins with just a mere unified flag football team and then it begins to permeate throughout the school itself."

Jets VP of Community Relations Jesse Linder added: "The Jets are honored to play a role in the growth and development of Unified flag football in New Jersey. It has been an organization-wide effort to make this league a reality and we can't wait to see what the future holds for these athletes and coaches."

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