The Lee County Special Olympics flag football team will hit the field at Duck Samford Stadium on Sunday to defend its title over Tuscaloosa's team in the annual Special Olympics Iron Bowl.
Lee County won the Iron Bowl trophy back with a win last season over the Tuscaloosa Special Olympics team, and they don't have any plans on returning it.
"It is awesome, and we don’t want to give it back," said Elizabeth Kaufman, director of Lee County Special Olympics."We were very excited to win it back last year, and we want to keep it."
Lee County athletes are taking the challenge seriously — they started holding weekly practices in August and doubled that in recent weeks, allowing them to home in on the game and to work on plays.
The Lee County Special Olympic athletes absolutely love it, said Kaufman.
"They take this so seriously, as they should," she said. "They’re a great group. They’re a bunch of very fun-loving kids, great athletes, hard workers, and they have fun at practice — they laugh, they joke, they enjoy it, but they take it so seriously. And on game day, they take it even more seriously. They will step on that field and they will 100 percent be focused on the game and have their game faces on.
"They are ready to take on Tuscaloosa. Their dedication is unmatched."
The game, played annually as part of Special Olympics' college rivalry series, is also a great opportunity to raise awareness in the community about Special Olympics and special needs, said Kaufman.
"It’s also an opportunity for community inclusion and to support our athletes because they work really, really hard to prepare for this Iron Bowl every year," she said. "I think to have people from the community there will provide a lot of energy for the day and for the game and it will motivate our athletes even more than they’re already motivated."
The funds raised through free-will donations at the gate will go to Lee County Special Olympics and help purchase uniforms, sports equipment and fund the biggest expense — travel.
"Most of the funds that we raise go toward travel," she said, adding that concessions will be on sale to raise additional money.
Gates at Duck Samford Stadium will open at 12:30 p.m. Sunday, with the Opening Ceremony following at 1 p.m. It will include a statement from Mayor Ron Anders, the Special Olympics athlete's oath, and National Anthem performed by students in Auburn High School special needs classes and the Auburn High School Pep Band.
The halftime show will feature Auburn Junior High and High School cheer squads, flag line and majorettes, as well as the Lee County Special Needs cheer squad.
"We’re trying to make this the biggest year ever for the Iron Bowl, which is why we’re having it at the high school stadium," Kaufman said. "We’re inviting everyone from the community, and we can’t stress that enough. We really want the community to come out and support us and just see what we do, to take the opportunity to see how we do things.
"It would mean a lot to them to have people come out and see them. That’s part of why we try to put together a big opening ceremony, a big halftime show, to help draw a crowd and to make it an official football game and make it something exciting, a destination for the day for local community members.
"It would just increase the energy and excitement and really motivate our guys because we are defending our title. We are very much defending our giant trophy and we would like to keep it."