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The first thing you notice about Summer Negli is her size.
She does not look like most other seven year old girls. Though she has not been diagnosed with any specific disability, Summer suffers from a lack of muscle development, which has left her very undersized for her age.
As Summer’s thin legs carry her around the bases at AMBUCS Park in Urbana, however, she does not look out of place. Her smile – like the rest of her – is small, but on the baseball diamond she is beaming.
Summer is a participant in the Tom Jones Challenger League, a baseball league for mentally and physically challenged individuals. The league, which was founded in 1999 in partnership with the Champaign-Urbana Kiwanis Club and Champaign-Urbana Special Recreation, offers differently abled individuals, like Summer, a chance to play baseball in a safe and well supervised environment.
The idea behind the league is simple: Everbody deserves a chance to play baseball.
“The league is open for all kids with all disabilities. We don’t keep scores, everyone gets to play,” Bill Hand, a Challenger League coach, said. “It’s just so enjoyable, we don’t discriminate against anybody – there is a place for everybody and everybody wins.”
Hand has been involved in the league for six years and, besides coaching, has joined the league board. He got involved when his daughter, Tiffany, started participating in the league. Tiffany has Down syndrome and Hand said the chance for her to play a sport has been a great blessing.
Many special needs parents from the area have discovered for themselves what a blessing the Challenger League is for their children. Since its inception the league has grown from three teams to annually having ten teams and about 100 participants. Many of the youth (the league is open to individuals between the ages of six and 20, with room for leeway) come from the Champaign-Urbana area, but the Challenger League provides opportunities to special individuals from all around Champaign County and the surrounding area.
Games in the Challenger League are last three innings or an hour, whichever comes first. Every member of a team gets to bat and run the bases. The league does not keep track of score, outs, stirkes or balls, preferring to focus on inclusion instead. Making sure everyone has a chance to participate is more important than who won or by how many runs.
To make sure everyone on the field is able to have fun and play the game safely each player has a “buddy.” Buddys help out in whatever way is necessary.
“We want to make sure we have a safe environment for all of the players,” Hand said.
Buddys ensure the participants safety, they protect the athletes from hard hit balls and accompany them around the bases or toward a ground ball. Because each individual is uniquely skilled some buddys have to help a little more, like help connect the bat to the ball or push a wheelchair around the bases. Other buddys might only have to keep an individual’s mind in the game or simply run the bases after a big hit.
No matter what the buddys do, though, they are an integral part of the league. Summer’s mother, Autumn Negli, says having so many people on hand to help the participants is what makes the Challenger League such a great institution.
“As a parent I feel like I can send my child out there and not have any worries. That’s important for a special needs mother,” she said.
Buddys are volunteers, like all of the people who make the Challenger League a reality. They come out to help the youth have a good time, but usually leave having had a pretty good time themselves.
On June 19 University of Illinois Athletic Director Mike Thomas attended his second Challenger League game. After being so impressed on one of the league’s “Celebrity Nights” he brought with him a dozen people from the U of I, including his own daughter, to be buddys for the night.
Thomas said the organization of the Challenger League greatly impressed him. Because of how much everyone in the league cared about the participants and how much fun he had, he felt it was a cause worth getting more people from the university involved in.
“These people are very passionate about doing something for those who don’t have the opportunity to play a sport like baseball in a recreational competitive league,” Thomas said. “The initiative behind this is that anyone should be able to play baseball and they really come through giving them that opportunity.”
The Illinois’ athletic director added that would like to continue doing volunteer work with the Challenger League in the future.
“I think next year we’ll try to do another Illini Night and get even more coaches out here,” he said. “I think it’s for a great cause and the kids are a special bunch of people. Tonight has been a wonderful night for me.”
Having members of the Illinois athletic department on hand helped raise awareness, bringing out many members of the media. The presence of the extra spectators also raised the spirits of the participants.
On a normal game night there are plenty of smiles to go around the diamond at AMBUCS Park. With so many people cheering and a couple extra cameras recording the athletes accomplishments, however, the smiles of the baseball players spread wide and became contagious, spilling on to the faces of the buddys.
The smiles, the enjoyment of the game, is why the Challenger League exists. Now, 14 years after starting play, the Challenger League is still going strong and spreading smiles. The teams take the diamond at AMBUCS Park in Urbana on Tuesday and Saturday for two games, beginning at 6 p.m. on Tuesday and 8 a.m. on Saturday.
Recently Hand has been told the Challenger League is one of the area’s best kept secrets. Though he is not unhappy with that designation, Hand wants more people to come out and cheer on these incredible young athletes. He wants to see their smiles spread as wide as possible every game day, not just on days when coaches from the U of I are volunteering.
“I don’t want to be a secret, I want to see people out here,” Hand said.
For information on how to sign up a participant, volunteer to be a buddy or just see a game schedule, visit the Challenger League’s website at www.tomjonesleague.org.