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Vikings Special Olympics Unified Flag Football Team Forms Family

" 'Family' on 3. 1, 2, 3, FAMILY!"

The huddle's excitement resonated from the playing field to the sky.

The 2023 Minnesota Vikings Unified Flag Football Team featuring The Blast, a Special Olympics Minnesota delegation, had just executed a comeback victory against a team sponsored by the Carolina Panthers and huddled for a chant. The contest occurred on the same field a little after Harrison Smith wrapped up his game-breaking performance with his second and third sacks of the day.

Much like the NFL game that day, the togetherness of the team helped overcome some earlier adversity and win a close contest.

Jason Bale, wearing the Vikings 22 that Smith has worn since 2012, made a remarkable interception to help seal the victory. Teammates erupted with joy as Bale collected the pass.

Quarterback/receiver Abel Mehari was involved in a couple of key plays on offense late in the game, and unified partner Jackson Woolems recorded two interceptions.

National Tight Ends Day was three weeks later, but Joshua Clark started the celebration early. He repeatedly worked the middle of the field and secured an incredible one-handed catch — and made sure to tell opponents how good they are.

"Great day. Little adversity. We went way ahead and fell behind. We hung together and came back," said Coach Brian Petrich, whom many players call "Dad."

"We run our program like a family, and a lot of our athletes don't have parents. They live in group homes and don't have family to come to the game and watch, so I'm their pseudo dad, even when [the athlete is] 40 years old. They call my wife 'Mom,' " Petrich explained. "We just create a family. We respect one another, work hard, play hard and have fun."

The Blast, a Special Olympics Unified Flag Football Team that was sponsored by the Vikings, traveled to Carolina to play a team sponsored by the Panthers. Vikings Head Coach Kevin O'Connell, receiver Justin Jefferson and former teammate Adam Thielen cheered for the participants. The Blast was able to execute a comeback victory on the same field where the Vikings claimed their first win of 2023.

Petrich had stayed up until about 2 a.m. the previous night going through his plays. He couldn't believe his eyes when he looked over and saw Vikings Head Coach Kevin O'Connell on The Blast's sideline. Vikings receiver Justin Jefferson and Panthers receiver Adam Thielen, his former teammate, also caught part of the game.

"That was amazing. Kevin O'Connell came up, I looked to my left, and I've got my play script. I go, 'Here Coach, you take it.' He looked at me and said, 'No, you're doing fine.' Having him out there, and J.J., Adam, it was incredible," Petrich said. "Athletes experiencing something like this, it's surreal. They were in the middle of an NFL field, playing football. I'm so proud of the team. It's a great group."

Carolina Panthers Director of Community Relations Riley Fields commended both teams for their high level of play and sportsmanship.

"There was a lot of great camaraderie, fellowship, competition," Fields said. "The takeaway from today is we hope this was a lifetime memory for the Vikings Unified Team as well as the Panthers Unified Team. We think it's a day neither will forget anytime soon."

Twin Cities Orthopedics sponsored the Vikings Unified Team for the second consecutive year. In addition to the trip to Carolina, the squad signed contracts at Minnesota's final training camp practice of 2023. Smith, O'Connell and Harrison Phillips all stopped by the hospitality tent to congratulate the team on becoming Vikings.

"You build up that ability to lean on each other as teammates in those critical moments where you can look to your left and look to your right and know, 'They've got my back, and we're going to do everything we can to overcome whatever obstacle we have to overcome. We're going to do it together,' and that's such a powerful thing," O'Connell encouraged. "Never take for granted being part of a team."

Meet the members of The Blast, a Special Olympics Unified Flag Football Team that was sponsored by the Vikings to play a team sponsored by the Panthers at Carolina in Week 4. The Blast was able to execute a comeback victory on the same field where the Vikings claimed their first win of 2023.

Coaches and players from the 2022 squad also attended to pass the torch to this year's group.

"The handoff that last year's team just made to this year's team, you could feel how special it was to them," TCO Chief Development Officer Chris Bailey said. "They'll talk about all this with their friends and family for years to come."

The idea first began in 2019 when the Vikings sent a team to Los Angeles to face a squad sponsored by the Chargers. It resumed after the pandemic in 2022, with TCO sponsoring the team that traveled to Miami.

As part of this year's experience, The Blast practiced at TCO Performance Center and attended the Vikings Saturday morning walk-through before Minnesota's Week 3 game against the L.A. Chargers. The team received specially created travel swag and was able to interact with current Vikings, as well as Legend Kyle Rudolph.

"Best moment of my life," Clark said. "I've watched him since he joined the league."

The group roared in approval when Jefferson presented a pair of cleats to Keith Collins, who has competed in flag football for 11 years.

"That was surprising because I didn't expect that from J.J. That was a pretty cool, exciting moment," Collins said. "I've been watching the Vikings my whole life, since I could basically understand football."

Tim Karpas, wearing 18 like he did in high school at Albert Lea, was a member of the 2019 team that traveled to L.A., but he was older than the age limit set for that trip.

"You never think you'd get to do it again, and four years later, I got chosen for our team. It's a good accomplishment. I'm proud of it," Karpas said.

Special Olympics Minnesota Development Director Mark Anderson and Special Olympics North Carolina Vice President of Development Susan Doggett appreciated the trip's role in advancing opportunities.

"This has been life-changing for our athletes," Doggett said. "This is our inaugural year, and hopefully the first of many to come with our new Panthers Unified Teams. It's hard to put into words what this means to them, but this is something they'll hold on to the rest of their lives."

Mehari has participated in Special Olympics for 13 years, including football for the past two.

His favorite Vikings QB of all-time is Daunte Culpepper. Mehari watches film from that era to pick up tips and loves trying to stretch defenses with deep passes. He most loves "being able to tell other people and younger generations that anything is possible."

"The only way to be unable to achieve your dream is to think you can't do anything," Mehari said. "Most importantly, you've got to be strong-willed, and you can't be afraid to fail."

Afton Jutila is an occupational therapist in her second year of Unified Flag Football. She's been a Special Olympics unified partner for six-plus years.

"It's probably one of the best decisions I've ever made in my life, just from all the friendships and family I've created, the memories I have and these amazing experiences," said Jutila, who encouraged others to get involved.

"I always say 100 percent, 'Don't be afraid to jump in. You've just got to go for it,' because once you start, like I did, I just watched a practice for the first time, and I was hooked from minute one, just building that connection," Jutila said. "The reward you get, it's been unlike anything else I've experienced in my life."