Team Kentucky photo

Pictured is the 2019 state championship Marshall County Special Olympics flag football team with most of the players representing Kentucky at the Special Olympics USA Games next year. Pictured are (front, from left) Cheyenne Byrd, Travis Hicks, Chris Capone, Edward Burkeen, (back row, from left) head coach Jonny Byrd, Jacob Dunn, Ryan Morrison, Aaron Morrison, Hunter Morrison, James Davio and assistant coach Randy Dunn.

Setting goals can be kind of funny. You might reach them, but how you got there may not be exactly how you thought.

That’s a bit how Marshall County Special Olympics earned the opportunity to represent their community and Kentucky in the 2022 Special Olympics USA Games as Team Kentucky.

The team had hoped to attain that honor on the basketball court after finishing runner-up to Owensboro in 2018. Instead, Marshall County Special Olympians were be on the gridiron playing flag football in Orlando next summer.

“That’s kind of been a goal of theirs where our bunch wanted to go as a basketball team,” explained coach Jonny Byrd.

But fate sometimes has other plans.

Byrd said that in 2019, Marshall County Special Olympics formed a flag football team and ended up winning the state championship in their inaugural season. That, in turn, made them eligible to represent Kentucky in the USA Games.

The announcement for Marshall County to represent the state at the USA Games next June was made last Tuesday.

“When they called and said we were nominated, it wasn’t for basketball but I knew they’d be happy about it and I knew they’d want to represent the state,” Byrd said. “They take it very serious.”

Members of Team Kentucky include Edward Burkeen, 28, of Benton; Chris Capone, 35, of Benton; James Davio, 29, of Calvert City; Jacob Dunn, 21, of Dexter; Travis Hicks, 30, of Gilbertsville; and brothers Aaron (25), Hunter (20) and Ryan (27) Morrison of Dexter. Randy Dunn is the team’s assistant coach.

“We’re excited to once again have the opportunity to send athletes and coaches to the USA Games,” Special Olympics Kentucky President and CEO Trish Mazzoni said in the formal announcement. “Being selected to Team Kentucky for the Games is not only a tremendous honor for our athletes, but it offers a great opportunity for personal growth. We have seen many of our athletes be transformed by this experience at the previous four USA Games that have been held.”

Special Olympics Kentucky will send 34 athletes, seven unified partners and 16 coaches to the USA Games at the ESPN Wide World of Sports complex at Disney World where they will compete in eight sports — artistic gymnastics, bocce, bowling, flag football, golf, swimming, track and field and unified basketball.

The nine-player team was to begin practice for the 2021 season this past weekend at South Marshall Middle School as flag football season started Sept. 1.

“They’ve got a lot to do to be in shape and stay in shape,” Byrd said. “Of course, we play basketball so that team’s in shape all the way through the end of March. And from the end of March through June of next year, we’ll be training for the games.”

According to Byrd, the USA Games will open with pool play with three other seeded teams. After each team plays one another, the next stage will be medal competition.

The team will also travel to Louisville or Lexington to train and prepare for the USA Games. That preparation, Byrd said, is both on and off the field.

“Because our athletes have special needs, they put them through several different tasks to prepare them for the trip to Orlando,” he said. “So they’ll take them to the airport (and) show them how that works.”

For now, Kentucky’s flag football season will go through the first of October. They are scheduled to play at Louisville’s St. Xavier on Oct. 10. If they qualify to defend their 2019 state championship, the state tournament will be Nov. 5 at Tates Creek High School in Lexington.

With all of their accomplishments in sports, at work and in their daily lives, Byrd said the team will be focused to make Marshall County proud.

“They work hard and I know they’ll be proud to support Marshall County,” he said. “Marshall County has always been supportive of us.”