EAGAN, Minn. — A rookie came up clutch in the final seconds of a thriller.
With the seconds ticking away, Linda Besonpere darted to the middle of the end zone and caught a floating pass from Vikings cornerback Mackensie Alexander.
The last-second touchdown gave Besonpere’s team the win and capped off a fun-filled day as the Vikings hosted athletes from Special Olympics Minnesota at Twin Cities Orthopedics Performance Center.
“I ran to the middle and I caught it … no one was blocking me,” said Besonpere, who is in her first year of playing flag football. It was fun.”
Besonpere’s score gave Alexander’s team the victory over defensive end Stephen Weatherly and his squad.
“They had to drive the whole field with 1 minute and 50 seconds left,” Weatherly said. “They threw in some runs we weren’t expecting and got some good chunk plays.
“That last play … Mackensie hits his dark horse receiver,” Weatherly said of Besonpere. “She had two key catches earlier in the game. She was right in the end zone, and we lost. She was the MVP, and rightfully so.”
Added Alexander: “We had about five seconds left to win it all … Weatherly wasn’t happy at all. But we’re all winners today.”
Eric Kendricks, Pat Elflein, Sheldon Richardson, George Iloka, C.J. Ham, Kevin McDermott and Brian O’Neill also coached and played during the games.
Eric Kendricks, Pat Elflein, Sheldon Richardson, George Iloka, C.J. Ham, Kevin McDermott and Brian O’Neill coached and played with local youth in flag football games for Special Olympics Minnesota.
While the competitive juices were certainly flowing, the event on Tuesday afternoon were more about inclusion and teamwork.
Flag football is a unified sport under Special Olympics Minnesota, meaning those with and without disabilities play together. Tuesday’s event saw the turf field at TCOPC hold four games at one time.
Dave Dorn, the President/CEO of Special Olympics Minnesota, said all each and every athlete came away inspired.
“When you see Sheldon Richardson scoring a couple touchdowns as a receiver … they were all having a good time,” Dorn said with a laugh. “For our athletes and our partners and coaches, for them to see the Vikings players … and for the Vikings players to see our athletes compete like regular guys as well, that’s what the whole inclusive moment is all about.
“Our vision is that this becomes much, much bigger. The unified movement is really the whole future of the Special Olympics,” Dorn added. “It’s all about people with and without disabilities on the same team. We’re really seeing it take off in schools … they will take that inclusive spirit into college and the community and the workforce.”
Vikings General Manager Rick Spielman, whose daughter participates in Special Olympics, was also on hand to take in the action.
“I think it’s a great opportunity for these kids,” Spielman said. “These kids get a chance to interact and play the game of football with professional athletes. But the players that we have out here really enjoy it as well. It’s a chance for them to see how special and unique these kids are.”
The Vikings players in attendance agreed with Spielman.
“It was incredible … just the scenery, the people, the kids,” Alexander said. “It reminded me of when I was young again. I tried not to be competitive, but I’m a little sweaty and got into it with them.”
“They don’t forget these like this,” Alexander added. “I still remember going to camps and stuff … I still remember that today.”
Added Weatherly: “I had an amazing time out there. I would definitely do this again.”
So would the athletes from the Special Olympics, who had the time of their lives mixing it up with the pros.
“It was so awesome. It was beautiful out here today. I’m a big Vikings fan,” said Billie Rodriguez. “It was so beautiful that I wanted to cry, but I had to keep my game tight. I caught two touchdowns and two interceptions, so I had to keep my emotions in check.”