An extraordinary day for the Lobos - Albuquerque Journal

An extraordinary day for the Lobos

John Cordova, center, a 16-year-old, runs through a blocking bag as part of an obstacle course drill while UNM football players cheer him on during the Extraordinary Lobos event held Wednesday. (Roberto E. Rosales/Albuquerque Journal)

John Cordova, a 16-year-old with Down syndrome, pumped his arms up, wanting louder cheers before he ran through an obstacle course during the inaugural Extraordinary Lobos event inside the Brian Urlacher indoor practice facility at UNM on Wednesday.

Cordova, one of several youths from Rio Grande Down Syndrome Network at the event, ran past the stepover bumps on the ground, then around a hose that was on the turf as the cheers grew louder and several UNM football players followed him.

Cordova hit and tackled a blocking bag and finally jumped on a mat, as everyone bounced and cheered. Participants also threw footballs into a net and ran 20-yard sprints on the field for about an hour.

“I think I’m the best player in this room,” Cordova said with confidence. “My dad always taught me to love football, no matter what. Don’t be down, go up. When you’re up, you’re No. 1. Don’t whine. Be up.”

UNM football coach Danny Gonzales, who has an 8-year-old daughter, Abby, with Down syndrome, said the event is for youths with different abilities – not disabilities.

“I’m fighting for the day when inclusion is the expectation,” Gonzales said. “My wife has wanted to do a camp like this since we had Abby.”

Gonzales’ wife, Sandra, said they both talked about having a football camp for kids with special needs eight years ago when they heard that Christian McCaffery (then a running back for Stanford and now with the Carolina Panthers) and his father, Ed, ran a similar event in northern California.

When Gonzales was hired at UNM for his head coaching job before the 2020 season, Sandra knew they would eventually have the Extraordinary Lobos event after the coronavirus pandemic.

Sandra loves the event because she said inclusion is everything.

“We tell everybody: You’re going to learn as much from her as she will from you; if not more, really,” she said. “This is what the real world looks like. We’re not all blond-hair, blue-eyed people. Everybody has different qualities. Everybody has different abilities. We need to all know how to work together and be together. This is everything that we have fought for and we are seeing it come to fruition.”

Sandra said her husband appeared more nervous on Wednesday morning than he has been before his Lobo football games because he wanted everything to go well for the kids with his football players and the UNM women’s soccer team helping him.

When Abby pushed over the blocking bag, it appeared she shouted as she stood over it, as some football players tend to do. The Lobo football players shouted in unison as if it was their teammate making a big hit.

Luis Aguilar, 7, who uses a wheelchair, did not know where he was going Wednesday morning. His aunt, Jessica Mora, surprised him when she drove him to UNM for the event.

Mora said it was very heartwarming to see Luis show so much joy as he participated in each drill.

“He is having so much fun,” Mora said during a water break. “He just asked if they can do it every day for him.”

Luis has spinal muscular atrophy. There are 4 levels of severity of SMA. Luis is SMA 2. The lower the number, the greater the severity.

“I asked him if he loves football, and he said yes,” Mora said. “He said his dream is to meet a real, live football player. When we came up here he was so excited.”

Matt Sellers, the pastor of Paragon Church and a 20-year resident of Rio Rancho, took his three adopted children to the event. Sellers and his wife, Christy, talked about adopting kids with special needs before they were married 25 years ago, Sellers said. They have four children with Down syndrome.

Endale, 9, is from Ethiopia. When he ran through the obstacle course, he wanted the players to give him a high-five.

“He’s a charmer,” Sellers said. “He loves to connect with people.”

LillyAnn, 9, and Levi, 11, are from China.

Coach Gonzales held LillyAnn’s hand during her first time through the obstacle course.

“I love the fact the players are gathered around them and cheering them on,” Sellers said. “I know my kids feed off of that. Levi, he’s kind of anti-social, and didn’t really have a whole lot of desire to do it, but as soon as he saw everybody cheering, he got in there and did it. It’s really good to see that.”

Sellers’ youngest daughter, Glory, 4, who is from Bulgaria, was unable to attend.

Glory, who is also deaf, had surgery for three hernias, Sellers said. It was her seventh surgery since the Sellerses brought her home a little over two years ago.

A New Mexico Senate bill introduced in this year’s legislative session was named “Glory’s Law,” after Sellers’ youngest daughter. SB 158 would prohibit discrimination against transplant recipients solely based on their physical or mental disability.

SB 158 did not make it through the session, Sellers said, but supporters will try again for the next session.

Gonzales publicly supports the bill and said he is willing to help any others with similar challenges in any way that he can.

Gonzales thanked Rio Grande Down Syndrome Network event coordinator Billy Thiebaut, as well as former Lobo Scott Creagan of Graphic Connection for donating T-shirts. A local Chick-fil-A donated free meals and Pepsi supplied beverages.

“It’s a great deal for our community,” Gonzales said. “I hope we grow this thing as big as we can.”

UpFront is a Journal front-page news and opinion column. Comment directly to assistant sports editor Steve Virgen at 823-3935 or svirgen@abqjournal.com.

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